Friday, September 30, 2011

Between States: Badaboom Twist

David Libens, a fellow at the Center for Cartoon Studies, is one of many cartoonists who has done a daily diary strip. What's interesting about his strip is that there wasn't necessarily an initial intent to even publish it; it had a more therapeutic purpose. What's also interesting is that while it's very much a quotidian diary strip featuring details from his daily life as a husband and father, there actually is an underlying narrative. That narrative concerns his future: whether to stay in Belgium or move to America, his wife's country and one to which he feels a connection. To date, he's published four minicomics collections of his strips, which can be found at his blog.

In general, I thought these comics were some of the best autobio stories I've read in a while. There's a raw honesty in them and a willingness to be real on every page, even when he goes back and forth between the details of his day at work or with his family and his own doubts. The underlying narrative is really part of a larger theme, which is the feeling of being caught betwixt and between. He's unsure of himself as an artist because of his day job. He's uneasy living in Belgium and feels like the other shoe could drop any day and his family split up. He's uneasy being alone and uneasy at times being with his family. He has a great affinity toward America (indeed, he talks about wanting to publish comics in English) even if he's uneasy about the thought of being away from his own family if he moved there. In sum, there's a wide swing between resentment and empathy for both Libens and his wife, as they're both in an intractable situation. There are also moments of joy and ease to go along with that tension, and one senses that his anxiety is played up in these strips as a way to blow off steam.

There is a ragged simplicity to Libens' line here, as his hair is depicted as a few simple, unconnected lines. That gives his self-caricature a slightly disheveled look, especially when he depicts himself as stubbly as well. Everything about the strip feels spontaneous and expressive, which is frankly the only way in which these kind of strips can really work. The result can look rough and the page composition can be wonky as a result; some pages are way too wordy and it's clear that he rushes through some panels in an effort to crank out a strip on a given day. The thing about these sort of strips is that it's not the impact of a single strip that's important, but rather the cumulative effect of these comics. The reader slips into the artist's stylistic skin, so to speak, and Libens makes it easy for a reader to adapt to his style and voice because it's clear that he's so comfortable in it. It's that ease with his own voice that makes it possible for Libens to get across how uncomfortable he is with all other aspects of talking about his life.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Some CCS Minis: Forsman, Barrett, Bohn, McFadzean, Vaughn

The advent of SPX has once again brought a bounty of minicomics to review. Here's a quintet of minis from assorted students and alums of the Center for Cartoon Studies.

The End of the Fucking World #1, by Chuck Forsman. One of Forsman's specialties has become the depiction of losers, creeps and the generally alienated. This mini concerns an extreme example of such a person, a nameless teen who at a very young age has an awareness of being a psychopath. That manifests in his inability to laugh or feel, leading him to extreme behavior in an effort to generate some kind of emotion or sensation. The result is a lot of dead animals, two of his fingers mangled by a garbage disposal and contemplating the murder of someone who more or less pushed her way into being his girlfriend. The issue ends with him slugging his father and stealing his car. Forsman's line continues to grow simpler and more economical as he evolves as an artist. He still adds a lot of hatching and cross-hatching in the corners of his strips, an effect that rounds the tops of his images and contributes an air of gloom and dread. He also has a knack for depicting kids with long hair with just a few lines. This is an intriguing little comic and I'm eager to see just where Forsman will take this story.

Dental Damned!!, by Pat Barrett. This is the fourth issue of Barrett's one-man anthology series, Oak & Linden, done in a completely different format. This is a 7x3" comic (landscape, essentially) done entirely in color, and it looks like it may have been drawn on a computer. The color is more than a little garish as Barrett is trying to emulate animated features moreso than comic books. Another clue in that direction (other than the Looney Toons tribute on the inside front cover) is the way his characters move: in fits, spasms and jerks. The story concerns a Barrett stand-in character on his way to the dentist to fix a tooth that's been knocked out. Along the way, he spins fanciful reasons as to how the tooth got knocked out (fencing match, orgy, dance party) until the merciless dentist makes him tell the truth. What I liked about this story is that Barrett takes standard autobio tropes (a story about a medical problem) and spins it into an exaggerated series of gags. In terms of images, the panel where one sees a huge penis juxtaposed against Barrett's cute drawing style was especially funny, as was the naturalistically-drawn close-up of the rot & gore in his mouth. This is not Barrett's best comic, in part because it doesn't flatter his most significant skills as a draftsman, but it's an interesting experiment nonetheless.

After The Future, by Casey Bohn. Some artists come into CCS without a real style to call their own. That is not the case with Bohn, who uses a simple line predicated on chunky figures and the dominant use of black to emphasize backgrounds and deemphasize figures. His line has a somewhat creepy quality, as his figures resemble something like 1950s clip art or advertising art. It lends his comic a weird, artificial quality, as though it was an object that was found instead of drawn. That sense of disorientation is an apt match for this comic about an inventor alienated from his magnate father who transfers his consciousness into robot form. The ending is somewhat anticlimactic and makes the issue feel more like an origin story than a one-off, but the quirkiness of Bohn's style is enough of a draw to make this a worthwhile reading experienced.

Ghost Rabbit, by Dakota McFadzean. McFadzean is one of the most accomplished draftsmen I've seen from CCS, and it's clear that his storytelling instincts are also well-refined. Despite his obvious skill, there's a sense of restraint in his storytelling that elevates his work above its basic visual appeal. This story features the parallel narrative of a young girl growing up in a house where her mother struggles with her own mentally decaying mother along with an anthropomorphic rabbit haunted by the titular ghost rabbit. The lingering images of memory loom large in this story and they're elegantly portrayed by McFadzean, starting with the vellum cover featuring the ghost rabbit and an intact country house that transforms into a house ravaged by age when the page is turned. McFadzean implies that the anthropomorphic rabbit's narrative is a product of the girl's imagination as she processes the repeated phone conversations her mother has with her grandmother, until she actually sees a rabbit in the wild. Initially, that real-life meeting leads to a joyous fantasy sequence (featuring two pages of the characters dancing with each other excitedly) but the ghost lingers further when she understands that the rabbit is sick and soon dies. We see that small ghost hop after her when she comes inside after covering the dead rabbit with leaves, as the girl has acquired the same sort of ghost that she imagines her mother is burdened with. This is a simple, elegant and poetic comic by a highly promising young artist.

Heavy Flow, by Jen Vaughn. This is the third in a series of Vaughn's hilarious and frank "Menstruation Station" comics, this time focusing (in minute detail) on the mechanics of the menstrual cup and why it's a superior alternative to tampons and pads. Vaughn has always been ambitious and creative in her page design and panel composition, adding elements of diagrams, instructional manuals and decorative illustrations in an effort to create a narrative around her campaign for alternative menstrual cycle care. Vaughn also makes a number of interesting side points related to gender with a helping of wit, but she doesn't soften her rhetoric while doing so. For example, she refers to tampons and pads as "yet one more tax for being a woman" and includes things like birth control and ibuprofen but also adds "unicorn figures" and "creepy hair removal products" to the list, with an asterisk that notes "some items optional". What's disappointing about this mini is that while Vaughn has a definitive and powerful voice as a writer and designer, her line simply doesn't live up to the material. Vaughn's line is in a limbo state between naturalistic and cartoony, a state not uncommon for artists who are trying to draw something very specific but simply don't have the chops to draw it effectively. Part of Vaughn's problem is that she rarely varies her line weight (except when lettering). Another problem is that her attempts at hatching and cross-hatching seem rushed and sloppy. As a result, some images create distraction instead of imparting information and telling a story. Vaughn does have a nice knack for body language and gesture, and the pages that feature two characters interacting with each other are her most successful. I get the sense that Vaughn will simply improve over time, but I hope that she one day redraws these minis when she's ready to collect them.

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Dozen Thoughts On Love & Rockets: New Stories #4

This isn't a formal review, per se, but instead a few gut-reaction thoughts on the remarkable new issue of Love & Rockets: New Stories (#4). I've never bothered to do this before in a review, but the nature of this issue demands that I note that there are spoilers below.

1. Gilbert's "King Vampire" is another in his line of Fritz-related grindhouse movie adaptations. It's also a brutal takedown of the current cultural obsession over vampires. Vampire fiction eroticizes the monsters at the core of their stories, equating bloodlust with simple lust and essentially glorifying rape fantasies. In one shockingly disgusting scene, the sexy vampire in the story squashes a guy's head against a wall in the most visceral manner possible so as to make it easy for his new prey to drink his blood, but also provide an object lesson. For a predator, its prey is little more than an object at hand. That scene bluntly drains all of the eroticism out of the story and rightly smashes the whole vampire erotica genre to bits.

2. Gilbert's "And Then Reality Kicks In" is a sober, complex and layered conversation between Fritz and an old boyfriend. Like a lot of things in this issue, this story has an air of finality to it, a capstone of sorts. I haven't figured out which old lover of Fritz's this is (I need to go back and reread), but there was something satisfying about seeing her in possession of hard-won wisdom.

3. Speaking of an air of finality, Jaime's follow-up to last issue's "Browntown" and "The Love Bunglers" is what pushes this issue into the stratosphere. I literally have no idea where he goes from here with his Locas characters.

4. It is cliche' to talk about one's favorite characters as though they really exist and feel like friends. It is certainly not a very sophisticated way to read a story. That said, if any cartoonist has created work that's earned this mark, it's Jaime. When Ray Dominguez was getting his head bashed in by Calvin (truly the most tragic character in Jaime's cast), my gut reaction was "No!" Ray is Jaime's Everyman character--a decent if slightly underachieving guy who never had the cool of someone like Speedy or Hopey (especially in his own eyes) and so always feels like an underdog in earning Maggie's affections.

5. The theme of the past two issues has been emotional steadfastness and patience. Characters are forced to put their cards on the table about their feelings. For some, like Ray, it was a move of maturity, of realizing what he wanted as a middle-aged man and that he had no more time to waste. For some, like Reno, it was trying to act on long-supressed crushes but not understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. For Vivian "the Frogmouth", it was an expose' of her essential vapidness, a lesson learned too late. For Maggie, it was a lesson learned almost too late that one must jump on opportunities when they arise, that putting aside one's own baggage is the key to moving on. Maggie could simply never get out of her own way. Calvin's story was one of devotion never being rewarded and becoming warped as a result. Intimacy was conflated with assault in his mind as he tried to "protect" his sister.

6. Those themes are tied up in "Return To Me", which is a sequel to both "Browntown" and "Wigwam Bam". The latter, in my opinion, was the high point of Jaime's work in Love & Rockets Volume I. The flashback stories in the past two issues have served the purpose of filling in a couple of crucial emotional blanks in Maggie's backstory. "Browntown" established how her parents' divorce cut her off emotionally from her family on a permanent basis, but also how her relationship to her best friend Letty started to fracture a bit. "Wigwam Bam" was Letty's story from Maggie's point of view, a crucial entry in that it revealed where Maggie was emotionally right before she met Hopey. Letty was of course killed in a car accident, but the heartbreaking "Return To Me" documents her friendship with Maggie from her point of view. Maggie always feared that Letty was too cool for her, but Letty never let Maggie out of her heart. This story was all the more tragic because Letty felt so awful for Maggie that her mother left her behind in Hoppers and was prepared to take her in and really nurture her. Instead, she was cruelly cut down, and Maggie never quite knew how her friend felt about her.

7. The last chapter of "The Love Bunglers" was a tour-de-force, a walk-off grand slam of a story that was thirty years in the making. I doubt there were any dry eyes on the part of long-time fans of the series while reading this, yet every single moment was completely earned organically. There was no easy sentiment on display, but rather thirty years' worth of hard-won lessons and building emotion. What was especially powerful about the last chapter is how slow and easy the pace of the prior chapters was. In retrospect, one can see how Jaime was building up to this in the earlier chapters (just as the flashback stories enhance and comment on the present-day story), but the scene where Calvin has a psychotic breakdown (after once again seeing the blue sun, a metaphor for the way Calvin sees real things that others don't and ignore) and thinks that Ray has done something bad to Maggie was heartbreaking. Ray was typical Ray in that scene--slightly exasperated, more than a little patient and trying to do the right thing--and got his head bashed in for his troubles.

8. Considering the tragic circumstances of Calvin and Ray's own hard-luck life, I honestly thought that's where the story was going to end. Jaime's narrative equivocation about Ray's fate didn't feel manipulative to me; instead, he effectively inserts us into Maggie's perspective while giving the reader enough extra information to make the scene where she's talking to the guy in the record shop about Ray all the more heartbreaking. Jaime also inserts a bit of humor when she visits a brain-damaged Ray at his parents' house when his mother notes that all he says is "Maggie", "fuck" and "shit". Jaime is a master of body language and gesture, and the panel where Maggie curls into a ball was devastating.

9. That set up the two-pages with a nine-panel grid on each. The Maggie page is something we've seen before with her, and this page took us from her time as a baby to now. Seeing that the next page not only did the same with Ray, but when I realized as a reader that each corresponding panel on Ray's page commented on Maggie (and in most of them, because they were eyeing one another), it was a stunning gut punch. This was Jaime at his finest, "sampling" old stories, telling a story without a true narrative and using his command of gesture to recapitulate a thirty-year story.

10. The final scene with Maggie (now a mechanic once again) taking Hopey's son back to her was pitch-perfect. There's hasn't been much interaction between the two characters in a number of years, yet Jaime still has a way of conveying an astonishing amount of meaning in a very short number of panels. As always, there is both ease and tension between the two women, even as they have their own very different lives. Hopey inviting Maggie in several times and Maggie demurring was a crucial narrative point, though that's not clear until we see Ray. In other words, Ray is now Maggie's top priority.

11. Finally, the last scene with Ray was simple, powerful, emotional--again, all of that feeling felt earned, with Maggie's saying "Of course I waited for you, I love you" succinctly summing up this complex, messy, beautiful relationship. That scene was also a connector to the opening sequence of Jaime's stories in this issue, as we meet a long-time couple and see them go about their daily routine; it's decidedly unsexy and is all about devotion. The man is Yax, Maggie's new business partner, but that relationship is a referent to Maggie and Ray growing old together.

12. Again, where does Jaime go from here? Does he continue to examine Maggie & Ray's relationship as they grow older? Does he turn his eye back to Hopey as she raises a son? Is Calvin's story over? Will we see more from Penny or Izzy? Or does he turn back to depicting youth as Angel goes off to college? Perhaps at this point Maggie will be more of a background character for a few years. Perhaps he'll start over with something completely different. Certainly, his "Locas" universe feels as finished as it ever will. Whatever he decides, Jaime certainly stuck the landing on his life's work to date.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

15 Observations From SPX 2011

A few thoughts regarding SPX 2011, the eleventh I have attended since 1997.

1. Like many, SPX was the first show of its kind that I ever attended, years ago. As such, I not only have a great deal of affection for it as a friendly and inclusive show, it's also easy for me to see certain patterns repeat, year after year.

2. For example, it's been de rigeur since 2003 or so to claim that the show "just isn't the same". Part of that is a natural cycling through of artists, as it's the energy of the show's youngest participants that frequently creates the show's particular strains of mythology as "cartoonist sleepaway camp".

3. The show's biggest change was the move from the Holiday Inn to the Marriott in 2006, which put every exhibitor in one one room and increased the overall number of exhibitors. That made many of the show's trends that much more obvious to all, in addition to a key sea change in comics: the rise in popularity of webcomics.

4. As I have noted several times before, by 2006 it was possible for fans in entirely different camps of comics to come to SPX and have completely different experiences of the show. Kate Beaton is of course the model for this kind of experience; she drew mobs to her table at past SPX's with either no works or print or a self-published collection of cartoons, a phenomenon that mystified those not in the webcomics world. Her long lines at her Drawn & Quarterly table this year were a symbolic mixing of the two camps, especially as more alt-cartoonists are taking to the web these days.

5. The real divide at SPX has always been that of indie mainstream vs alt-comics. SPX has also always been especially supportive of local artists, whatever their particular artistic inclination. As long as there's been an SPX, there have been cartoonists self-publishing their own fairly ordinary superhero/fantasy/horror/zombie/other genre comics, distinguishable from Marvel or DC only by a lesser level of professionalism and (occasionally) a personal stamp of originality. SPX is also a con where one can see an extreme level of entry-level amateurism, as its all-comers nature has always enabled its participants to attempt to get better in public. It isn't, and never has been, a show with a consistent definition of or desire to categorize great comics art. It's always let the crowd decide what they want, though there's no question that the more inclusive and slightly middlebrow nature of the show has always been a reflection of the steering committee's tastes.

6. Given that the show is a fundraiser for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, an organization that defends retailers and artists alike, I think that inclusiveness has always been an appropriate stance. There has always been ample room for art comics at SPX, as well as room to nurture minicomics makers who later exploded onto the larger scene, like Kevin Huizenga or Paul Hornschemeier. There have been years where that scene seems to shine a bit more brightly than most, but there were plenty of interesting art comics to be found at this year's show.

7. What is certainly true of this year's show is that it was exceptionally well-run. With an incredible run of national publicity leading up to the show, the staff and its volunteers weathered the single biggest day of attendance ever at SPX. Even at 1pm and 2pm, there was a long line of people just waiting to get tickets and get into the show. By that point, the aisles were already packed with people. What's remarkable is the way that one-time volunteers eventually step into leadership roles when executive members decide to step down. A word of thanks needs to be passed onto Karon Flage, the long-time executive director who stepped down after last year but continues to be a strong presence at the show. (The fact that she found my missing sketchbook is icing on the cake!) Greg McElhatton, Eden Miller and Caroline Small were other key personnel this year who performed tasks great and small. Of course, Bill Kartalopoulos did his typical great job putting together a programming track that emphasized art comics but still had plenty for a slightly more mainstream audience to find something of interest.

8. That said, the figure of Warren Bernard as the show's new executive director loomed large over the show. The retired busisnessman has spearheaded any number of initiatives that have enhanced SPX's legacy as a cultural institution, and has done so with remarkable vigor and clarity of purpose. SPX has always had the chance to be a comics festival more than just a simple swap meet, and getting the Library of Congress to preserve the show's art, Ignatz Award Nominees and a select group of minicomics (wisely curated by a small committee) is a fantastic first step. The program that donates graphic novels to local libraries is another smart move that will both help grow audiences as well as grow good will. These are legacy moves whose true impact may not be fully understood for a generation.

9. Bernard is a blunt, no-bullshit, clear-thinking leader. Upon surveying aisles that inhibited free movement for its patrons, Bernard quickly announced that the show would take over another ballroom and add 50% more floor space. He quickly noted that this would only mean adding something like 10-12 more tables (which will be no problem considering that their waiting list had over fifty people on it) for exhibitors, a few more tables for SPX itself and a lot more room for those walking the floor. He said that the committee would carefully study the new space to determine what the best floor plan set-up would be. Bernard also dropped the bomb that he got both Chris Ware and Dan Clowes to commit to next year's show, a whopper of an announcement given that neither had ever attended the show. I'm not sure either artist has been at the same show of any kind in quite some time. Bernard is a man with connections who isn't afraid to use them; his story about how he cinched the Library of Congress deal involved five years of volunteering at the institution as well as access to high-powered lawyers who helped maneuver through high-levels of bureaucracy was a dizzying one.

10. It certainly doesn't hurt that Bernard is a comics historian with real credentials, having just published a book about advertising art with Fantagraphics. He has as deep an understanding and appreciation for comics as art as anyone who has ever connected with SPX. Simply being able to give key guests of the show tours of the Library of Congress has to be a powerful inducement to attend. While it's clear that Bernard has refined tastes and will clearly promote the art-comics aspect of the show by getting the best guests and programming possible, I think he's not blind to the fact that the entry-level, community nature of the show is one of SPX's unique traits. Even the least professional of exhibitors is all about comics qua comics--not t-shirts, art objects or anything else.

11. That certainly played out in terms of the crowd. It skewed quite young, with dozens of teenagers and young 20somethings either eager to check out the scene or else trade their minicomics. The show is generally well-attended, but the show's own initiatives as well as a series of articles & interviews by Michael Cavna all had to play a part in generating interest. By the end of the show, many exhibitors had either sold out of their comics or were down to their dregs. This is during a soft economy, to boot.

12. Another interesting thing about the crowd, and this actually is a generational change: it was not only young, it was also at least half female. While this was always true of MOCCA, SPX used to be heavily skewed toward male fans. It certainly helps that something like 40% or more of the exhibitors were women and that much of the programming featured women and topics of interest to women. All of this was quite an organic process (it's the way the show has evolved), but I also get the sense that this is an important value for the show's organizers.

13. Regarding commerce, I spoke to a number of happy cartoonists who essentially swore off MOCCA and its $400+ tables. Given SPX's more reasonable $300 per table (a number I don't see rising), large table size, many amenities, friendly atmosphere, free-flowing booze on Ignatz night and (above all else) a crowd that was eager to spend money, I'm guessing most of the exhibitors will make an effort to return next year. Even given the expense of the hotel and travel, it seemed like many exhibitors were making money.

14. My own panel, "Stories of Cultural Identity", featuring Sarah Glidden, GB Tran, Marguerite Dabaie and Jessica Abel, was quite successful. The artists answered questions regarding identity in their works, how their comics are perceived in the community, the idea of insider vs outsider status and how their being American affected all aspects of their work. I look forward to seeing much of the rest of the programming on video.

15. As I noted elsewhere, the death of Dylan Williams cast a pall on the show on Sunday. People were in the mood to talk and reflect, and it was a day that reflected the community found at the show far more than simple commerce or revelry did.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Big Batch From Silber Media

Silber Media's Brian John Mitchell sent me a huge batch of his latest micro-mini comics. As always, these minis are 2x2" and range from 12 - 40 or so pages. They're almost entirely written by Mitchell and drawn by a number of collaborators, though Mitchell does do stick-figure drawings for some of these comics. Mitchell's minicomics publishing empire is one of the odder phenomena in comics today, and I always look forward to a new shipment. Given the size of this latest shipment, I'll do a lightning-round style evaluation of each, with just a sentence or two of commentary.

Poit!: WTF and Poit!: La Jetee, by BJM and Dave Sim. The common thread for all of these comics is a palpable yet restrained sense of desperation. These stick-figure experiments with Sim feature precisely the same art in both minis, with completely different dialogue (written by Mitchell) in each. In one, the protagonist pops in and out of horrible events as a time traveler. In another, he constantly dreams about killing his girlfriend. In both cases, suicide winds up being his solution.

Lost Kisses #21, by BJM. This has always been Mitchell's best series: a series of stick-figure drawings featuring dialogue with narrative captions that provide a funny counterpoint, although that humor is cynical and frequently pitch-black. This one also focuses on time travel, musing on how it might affect his life.

Built #1, by BJM & Joe Badon. This story about a robot with human emotions who strives to move beyond his station in life is about 90% filler, plodding on long after its premise was established.

xlk: Extreme Lost Kisses, by BJM & Nick Marino. Best way to describe this comic: if Rambo had been done as a stick-figure cartoon with an overdubbed narrator pontificating about his mission ala Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now.

Ultimate Lost Kisses #12, by BJM & Jeremy Johnson. This story about a teenager who becomes pregnant and is determined to keep it feels a bit like a Dave Kiersh comic, minus compelling imagery.

XO #7, by BJM & Melissa Spence Gardner. This is the continuing story of an introspective assassin who muses about his life and his relationships. In this issue, he falls in love with a woman who should raise red flags, and winds up paying a price. This was a genuinely exciting comic, and Gardner's simple gray-scaled art is effective in giving the reader short sharp shocks on each page.

Small Art Series: American, Awake, Climb, Professor Horton, Why Birds Sing, miscellaneous, by BJM. All of these feature color photos of assorted textures, meant to mimic wood, fire (Professor Horton is about the original Human Torch), plumage, etc. These tiny comics are worth a glance, though not a lingering look, because it's less about aesthetics than concept.

Monthly #1, by BJM & Eric Shonborn and Star #1, by BJM & Kurt Dinse. Mitchell loves flipping seemingly mundance stories into supernatural thrillers, all while maintaining the initial dramatic/romantic thread. Monthly drops an early clue as to why its protagonist can't find the right girl to fall in love with and why this is so important, and then spills its reveal halfway through. It's a funny, effective bit of shock, aided by clear and stark art by Shonborn. Star's concept is similar, though it lets the cat out of the bag a little earlier and so starts to drag halfway through. There's also too much clutter on the page.

Vigilant #1, by BJM & PB Kain. This comic about vigilantes is both tedious to read and boring to look at. It's one of the rare total misfires from Mitchell.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Some Thoughts On Dylan Williams

(photo by Neil Brideau, by way of Raighne Hogan)

Sunday at SPX 2011 was part convention, part therapy session for many of its participants as most everyone woke up having heard that Dylan Williams, the publisher of Sparkplug Comic Books, had died. There's a pretty remarkable outpouring of grief and moving remembrances of Williams happening on the web right now; both Tom Spurgeon and Brian Heater are attempting to capture all of these links. What I hope to do here is not discuss his influence as a publisher or work out his importance as a historical figure in comics. I will be spending ample time in the future on this topic and those results will appear elsewhere, but it's important to at least note that one of the keys to his legacy is indeed the few dozen excellent, idiosyncratic and poetic works of comics published under Sparkplug's blanket. Instead, I want to work out some personal thoughts and ideas about Dylan.

I first met him at SPX 2002. That show had been long-awaited, as the 2001 iteration was canceled thanks to 9/11. As a result, that show was absolutely stacked with talent: the Hernandez Brothers, James Sturm, Ivan Brunetti, Jason (in one of his first US appearances), Charles Burns, Phoebe Gloeckner and many more. Jeff Mason's Alternative Comics was at its height, with the first collection of Gabrielle Bell's work and the Rosetta anthology. Still, I noted at the time that the fledgling Sparkplug Comic Books "may have had the most exciting books at the show", which included Jason Shiga's Fleep and Hello, World, and the excellent Orchid anthology (which I later tabbed as one of the best of the decade). T. Edward Bak and Ben Catmull were also at his table, with Catmull selling his Xeric-winning Paper Theater.

That's back when I occasionally wrote for Savant, attempting to inject some alt-comics flavor into what was mostly a Vertigo-inspired publication. Dylan quickly took notice when I started writing for and started sending me everything he was publishing. That's when I learned that he, like me, had remarkably catholic tastes. He loved a lot of different things that can be called comics and was unambiguous and effusive in his affection for everything from golden age comics to select silver age to undergrounds to humor to autobio to burgeoning forms like comics-as-poetry and immersive comics, two styles that he championed far more than any other publisher.

We always shared a warm and cordial relationship, and I felt we understood each other well. He was one of the first publishers to take me seriously as a critic, and saw how seriously I take this endeavor. I only got to see him at shows, and I have great memories of collaborating on how to shape a publishers' panel at SPX 2008. We would write each other notes about things the other had written, which was all too rarely in Dylan's case. In some respects, Dylan was a modern-day Bill Blackbeard. He genuinely loved comics, not as an obsessive/collecting/fetishizing hobby, but as beautiful objects with meaning that are unjustly discarded by the wider culture. More to the point, Dylan subsumed both his career as a cartoonist (where he had been quite active for more than a decade) and a historian (he should have been in a position to have written several books) in order to publish, encourage and nurture the works of other cartoonists. This was not perhaps the most glamorous of choices, but it not only wound up having the greatest benefit for comics (much like Blackbeard's editing so many anthologies changed the lives of readers forever), it was the right use of his skill set.

Dylan was a good cartoonist but not yet a great one; he may well have reached that level, but it was clear that it was something that didn't come easily to him. I think the same may have been true as a writer; I got the sense that he didn't trust his own voice sometimes. Simply put, he didn't enjoy self-aggrandizement or much personal attention in general. On the other hand, he was a phenomenal publisher. His instincts were unerring. He nurtured talent like no one else. He would see things in artists, very early in their career, that they themselves could not yet perceive. This is not to say that he was disingenuously kind; he only accepted work that met his demanding standard, yet always encouraged those he rejected in very specific ways on how to get better.

I think the key to understanding Dylan Williams is that he always thought as a cartoonist, first and foremost. And as a cartoonist, he was an outsider. Publishers rarely touched his work. As a publisher, he was an outsider. While no alt-comics publisher is really out to make money, Dylan brought a scrupulously fair and ethical approach to publishing inspired by punk icon Ian MacKaye. That business model was a small, self-sustaining approach driven not by maximum profits but by a realistic publication schedule, reasonable prices and fair practices for artists, all in the support of work he believed in completely. Dylan felt uncomfortable when artists and editors talked more about book deals and money grabs than they did about the actual comics themselves. I'm not sure he felt comfortable thinking of himself in the same company as Gary Groth or Chris Oliveros, publishers who obviously put out books they believe in, but are also businessmen who have a bottom line and who can only afford to finance a few big losers. Those two are also beholden in some respects to Diamond, which wound up putting the kibosh on a number of their low-selling series. Dylan steadfastly avoided dealing with Diamond and found a way to make it work on a small scale, no doubt at the cost of possibly thousands of dollars.

Dylan may have been an outsider, but he was not an iconoclast. From the start of the career with the Puppy Toss minicomics cooperative, he was a networker. He networked not to move up in the world of comics, but to bring people together. In much the same way disparate artists found themselves part of a community in the 60s with the underground movement and in the 80s with the Newave movement, Dylan helped foster that same sense of purpose and encouragement to another generation in the 90s. Sparkplug was the reification of that ideal, one made at around the same time he was originally diagnosed with cancer. I don't think this was a coincidence.

Dylan thought himself an outsider, and the biggest tragedy of this viewpoint is that he did not understand until it was almost too late just where he stood in the eyes (and hearts) of others in the comics world. As a close friend of his told me, he didn't think of himself as a beloved or inspiring figure to twenty years' worth of cartoonists. He thought of himself as someone getting the job done, as doing the best he possibly he could by the art form & the artists that he loved so much and that had given him so much inspiration (or as he once told me, "Just do your best, always."). In the last few weeks, when there was such a bountiful outpouring of support, love and money after his plight became publicly known, he finally understood, in no uncertain terms, just how everyone felt about him. Fans and friends fell over themselves to buy books. Critics rushed to recommend books. Peers started up an art auction for him, one that is still ongoing and whose need has not passed, given that more bills will need to be paid. Dylan felt that love, which makes it all the more shattering that he died in such a sudden manner.

His death certainly leaves a void in the lives of his family and friends. Clearly, the uncertain status of Sparkplug will be something to consider at a later time, after the mourning is over. There aren't many like him in comics today. That said, the narratives springing up about him and his impact reveal him to be a huge, nurturing tree whose branches spread far and resulted in sprouting blossoms across the world. He provided a model for how to think about comics, how to act with integrity as a businessman and how to treat others as a publisher, and this is his ultimate legacy: he upheld fairness in the arts field with the history of the most inhumane, unfair practices. It's now up to those he inspired to carry forward his example.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Strange World of Max Mose

Max Mose is unusual for a graduate of the Center For Cartoon Studies in that his work is quirkier and darker than most of his fellow alums, yet still sits squarely in the genre camp. The closest comparison I can make is it's a bit like alum Dennis St. John but also a lot like the sort of thing that Matthew Thurber does, only not as polished. Beyond the brushy and scratchy nature of his line and the air of gloom & dread he applies to the page's atmosphere with his use of grey, Mose's dialogue is deliberately ornate in an almost stilted manner. The dialogue is anti-naturalistic and even bombastic at times, as characters speak in a patois that seems to belong to a bygone era. He's crazily ambitious, with ideas, jokes, weird asides and other strangeness just spilling off the page. There's going to be a seasoning period for him where he refines his technique and ideas (both are a little on the sloppy side), learning how to stay loose while staying in control, but he's an artist whose next comic will be an exciting event.

feels like an early attempt; it's an 8 page mini at roughly 8.5 x 11". There's a lot of interesting imagery and weird ideas to be found in this literally-titled comic: a hall filled with columns wherein a king looks away from an idol painted red; a toy chest that opens to reveal a scene being performed for children; and an entity trapped by "links and waves". In order to work, the comic demanded a level of precision and balance that just wasn't there; several figures are drawn awkwardly in terms of anatomy and how they relate to others in space, for example. This comic was interesting as a visual exercise, but not much else.

On the other hand, (Agent of the) Counter-Revolution plays with genre conventions and dream-logic comics, making interesting connections between the two. This was the most Thurberesque of his comics, following a mad scientist in a jungle, his greatest creation (a sort of robot Frankenstein monster) and an immortal space goddess in their various quests. There's an actual narrative to be found here, crazy as it is, but Mose is never afraid to stop on a dime and twist around the reader's understanding of reality as the focus unexpectedly shifts from character to character. The design of the comic is interesting, with a cover dominated by lurid pinks and greens and a strange shape (6 x 8", printed landscape). The dialogue is so deliberately weird that it almost feels like a lost Fletcher Hanks comic; consider lines like "Now look at that thing like it's the ugly truth on a chalky ball of dung" and "Reassuringly, the sound coming from this hollow and the whir of my atomic heart a very similar" give one a flavor of how the entire story reads.

All Aboard is the longest of the three minis, a 50-page maritime horror extravaganza that goes over the top ten pages into the story and then continues to pile on from there. In terms of concept, story and tone, Mose crafted a story that is part period-piece romance drama, part horror story, part monster story and a sly parody of all three. Mose doesn't quite pull it off in terms of visuals; his line is frequently wobbly in a way that's distracting. He vacillates between too much detail and too little; backgrounds drop in and out of panels with no warning. There's an occasional awkwardness in the way his characters pose, creating stiffness where there should be fluidity.

That said, there are some amazing images in this book. The close-ups on various characters' faces are a constant source of amusement, thanks in part to the strange angles Mose employs. The way the eyes bug out are especially interesting to look at, and they remind me both of St. John's work as well as Lauren Weinstein's drawings. Of course, the real gems are the drawings of various sea creatures storming a yacht, intent on murdering everyone therein. It's not enough for flying fish to bite crew members; an octopus slithers down a hall and shoots a man with a gun it's pried away from him. A monstrous creature in a kitchen sink slices open a man's skull and sucks his brain out, shouting "The ocean of the soul is where I MARAUD". A giant octopus drags a helicopter underwater. All the while, the family drama plays out, revolving around the daughter of the heir of an oil corporation wanting to marry a business rival.

One gets the sense that All Aboard was produced with some deadline pressure involved, given that it was likely a comic he was doing as an end-of-semester project at CCS. This accounts for some of the sloppiness as well as some of the shortcuts he takes. When I speak of sloppiness, I don't mean that Mose should try to use a clear line or "draw prettier" for lack of a better phrase. Instead, he needs to make every line feel like it's in the right place. Thurber and Weinstein draw using a deliberately grotesque style, but their control over their lines makes it work for them. Mose seems like he's bursting with ideas and simply needs to corral his imagination and be a little more patient in how he depicts it. I am eager to see what he will do with his next long-form work.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Artists To Seek Out At SPX 2011; High-Low @SPX

I will be at SPX 2011 this year. I'll be hosting a panel on 9/10 at 3:30 in the Brookside Conference Room on "Stories Of Cultural Identity". I'll quote the blurb from the website: "America’s own culture wars are only part of a global struggle with identity, as nations the world over attempt to address the challenges of assimilating multiple cultures within a stable society. Moderator Rob Clough will talk to Jessica Abel (La Perdida), Marguerite Dabaie (The Hookah Girl), Sarah Glidden (How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less) and G. B. Tran (Vietnamerica) about comics that deal with issues of cultural identity." I'm looking forward to it.

As always, I'm happy to review whatever comics cartoonists choose to give me.

Here are ten young artists to seek out at SPX, on the basis of their potential and/or significant debuts at the show. A number of them are up for Ignatz awards. In alphabetical order:

1. Darryl Ayo. Ayo is an Ignatz nominee for Promising New Talent and is someone who has been steeped in comics and comics culture for a long time, even for a cartoonist as young as he. He's become a sharp observer of social mores as well as a mark-maker whose style has begun to coalesce.

2. Pat Barrett. This graduate of the Center for Cartoon Studies is one of its best draftsmen and stylists. His Oak & Linden minicomics are well-crafted one-man anthologies, and the actual anthologies he's been a part of (Nymphonomena and Tag Team in particular) are rather good.

3. Marguerite Dabaie. Dabaie is on my panel and has proven to be an interesting young voice with her Hookah Girl comics, which are autobiographical stories about growing up as a Palestinian-American. Dabaie is a fine draftsman with an eye for intricate detail.

4. Mike Dawson. Dawson is one of the more established cartoonists on this list, but his new book Troop 142 debuts at the show and it's his strongest work to date. He'll also be hosting a panel on his Ink Panthers co-host (on ten years since the publication of his first major work, Box Office Poison) that will likely be hilarious. Look for an extensive interview with him (by me) at very soon.

5. Lisa Hanawalt. She's one of the top humorists in comics, full stop. I don't know if she'll have anything new, but now is your chance to pick up both issues of her awesomely gross and hilarious series I Want You.

6. Melissa Mendes. This CCS grad has a bright future ahead of her and will get a bit of spotlight with the release of her collected Freddy stories. Mendes' scratchy line and ear for children's dialogue make her comics a wistful pleasure.

7. L.Nichols. Nichols is a talented artist still restlessly searching for her ideal style. Her Jumbly Junkery one-woman anthology comics feature an assortment of diary strips, longer autobio stories, fiction, comics-as-poetry and other experiments. Like the other young cartoonists on this list, she has a relentless work ethic and it shows in her improvement.

8. Laura Terry. Terry's up for an Outstanding Minicomic Ignatz award for Morning Song, a comic I greatly enjoyed. Terry's work has a lyrical quality that complements her interest in formal experimentation quite snugly.

9. Matthew Thurber. Thurber is the genius behind the 1-800-MICE series, which is now done and will debut in its collected form from PictureBox. He'll be on a panel at 1pm on Saturday titled "Drawing The Grotesque".

10. Noah Van Sciver. Van Sciver is another hard-working cartoonist who's gotten better thanks to his willingness to publish everywhere possible. His recent mini The Death of Elijah Lovejoy will likely be one of my top 25 minis of the year. He has a book coming out with Fantagraphics next year, but until then I'd buy up copies of his one-man anthology comic book Blammo.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Small Press Anthologies: Three #2, Candy Or Medicine, The Sorry Entertainer

Let's take a look at three anthologies of various shapes and sizes:

Three #2, edited by Rob Kirby. Nothing in this issue of the queer-themed anthology of Three matches Eric Orner's story from the first issue, which earned an Ignatz nomination. That said, there's a certain sweetness and vulnerability to be found in each of the three stories in this issue. "Dragon", written by Sina Evil and drawn by Jon Macy, is the least compelling of the three. It's about a young man who meets a cartoonist he admires and feels close to on the basis of his familiarity with his material. They have a romantic encounter during which the young man is coerced into doing things that made him somewhat uncomfortable, yet are rationalized away because of the connection he imagines between them. The "dragon" metaphor (and insertion into the story), however, is a painfully obvious metaphor, especially when something dramatic happens. It's annoyingly "cinematic", adding little to a story that's already a bit bland to look at.

Things pick up with "Help Wanted", a jam between Jennifer Camper and Michael Fahy. This is a delightful little comedy of misunderstandings with a distinct romance comic flair. What's surprising is that even though Fahy and Camper alternate panel tiers, there's a remarkable sense of continuity in terms of both story and art between the two. This is quite unusual for a jam comic, which usually tend to be huge messes. I don't know if the two improvised from tier to tier or if they wrote it beforehand, but the smooth result speaks for itself. I like the way that Camper and Fahy play up the romance comic tropes, down to lines like "Happy, darling?" being followed by "Oh yes! A thousand times yes!" coming after a man's FTM transexual boyfriend reveals that he's pregnant and once had a fling with his sister.
The best of the three stories is "Nothin' But Trouble", a collaboration between Craig Bostick & David Kelly. It's a story of a closeted country-western singer who picks up a prostitute after a gig but falls in love with him. There's a clever narrative trick where the story is told first by the singer (Jimmy, drawn by Bostick) and the prostitute (Butch, drawn by Kelly), alternating every couple of pages. The trick comes in terms of coloring: the red-toned pages belong to Jimmy and the green-toned pages belong to Butch, allowing the cartoonists to make whip-crack transitions with a minimum of narrative disruption. Bostick has always had an appealingly clear line, and the cartoony quality of his line is a nice counterpoint to the low-key melodrama of this story. There's no easy happy ending to be found to this story, yet both characters wind up having a surprising and positive effect on the other. It's a pitch-perfect slice of life story, with the two artists meshing remarkably well despite portraying two different but complementary narratives.

Candy Or Medicine: The Compleat First Year, and Candy Or Medicine #14 & #15, edited by Josh Blair. Blair decided to reprint the first four issues of his all-comers minicomics anthology which has a lower hit-to-miss ratio than virtually any other anthology, yet always yields some gems. As Blair notes in his introduction, this is a deliberate strategy. He's less an editor than an "OE", to use APAzine parlance. That is, he serves to collected and publish material sent to him, with the money he earns from sales (at just a dollar an issue, it can't be much) to support collating and copying each issue. His hope is that every story will appeal to at least some readers, even if they aren't necessarily the stories that he likes most. From the very beginning, Candy or Medicine attracted people who could barely draw or conceive of a coherent narrative as well as great cartoonists with no other print outlets. Brad W Foster (a Newave era stalwart) and Matt Feazell (the DaVinci of stick-figure minicomics) make early appearances with drawings instead of comics. The strip has also drawn an unusual number of international cartoonists eager for any kind of exposure to American artists, like Greek artist Kostis Tzortzakasis and Briton Kel Winser.

The most recent volumes (#14 and #15, sold as a two-pack for two dollars) show that the anthology is both much the same but has also started to attract a better quality of cartoonist. #14 is a particularly strong issue, with a strange and beautifully drawn story about how the mold in a kitchen spawned a new ecosystem and saved a marriage as its centerpiece. Emi Gennis contributed one of her "Wikipedia List of Unusual Deaths" comics, this time about an old man who was exercised to death by his wife, who happened to be a MTF transsexual and who also happened to be the child of old family friends thirty years his junior. Gennis' line just gets sharper and sharper, matching her wit as well. Lauren Barnett's absurd scribble is typically funny, especially in the way it makes fun of her own limited draftsmanship. Issue #15 doesn't feature any stand-out strips but is still interesting for publishing short comics from Lithuania and Guatemala. I love that Blair is so committed to this anthology, giving cartoonists the opportunity to get better in public.

The Sorry Entertainer, edited by Simon Moreton & Nick Soucek. This is a cheap newsprint anthology from the UK that includes contributors from Ireland, the US and Argentina, based around the theme of performing and performers. The results are a mixed bag, as some of the artists don't really rise to the occasion of using the space in an interesting manner. On the other hand, there's plenty to like here from a number of artists who have been making some noise in the UK and US scenes the past couple of years. Moreton's own strip follows a schoolboy persecuted by his peers who slips into fantastic reveries, acting as a sort of prologue for the kinds of stories that follow.

The tone of the anthology slips from light-hearted to the contemplative. Paddy Lynch, for example, submits a wispily-drawn story about a man going to a park musing about how difficult it is us for to live in and enjoy small moments while listening to a guitar player, only to have a policeman come by and shoo the guitarist away. Jason Martin's adaptation of Mike Watt's tour diary is hilarious, with his rough style a perfect match for Watt's whole demeanor. Another example of that swing is David Z. Greene's full-page wrestling strip that winds up with a silly (if bloody) punchline. Greene's one of the few artists in the whole broadsheet who really makes use of the space, filling up the page with big images that go a long way in selling his gag. Rol Hirst and Andrew Cheverton's "Face For Radio", on the other hand features an ex-DJ with a new gig: introducing records at a retirement home.

The ubiquitous Noah Van Sciver contributes a story about a four-eyed man shunned by society who joins a traveling freak show, grows embittered and kills his audience and the circus. Van Sciver crams the story into fifteen panels, yet nothing feels cramped and his drawings carry the story. The bitterness of performing is ground that's covered by Richard Worth & Jordan Collver as well as Chris Fairless. The former story is a detailed character portrait about a magician who first waxes nostalgic about his career, and then when the page is flipped, complains bitterly about it. Its outer border is that of a playing card, and his story is supported by a lightly penciled series of figures in the background. It's a clever bit of cartooning. Fairless' story is about a young immigrant who performs in a park by speaking truth to power until he gets busted, and then simply performs as a statue. Fairless uses shadow and light contrasts to tell his story, and the modulation of these tones is what gives the story its emotional power.

Other highlights include a typically goofy strip by Lauren Barnett about a sad clown who performs for Jesus, a funny strip about a comedian with a particularly lowest common denominator for a gimmick by Sam Spina, Peter Batchelor's story about a psychic with a horrible secret, Soucek's account of a story about a rock band who got the greatest gig of their lives under dubious circumstances, and of course an epic bit of full-page lunacy from the inimitable Rob Jackson. His account of an entertainer who recalls his life's story is full of hilarious non sequiturs, with his typically rough style somehow accentuating the effect of his silliness. While there were no true duds in the anthology, none of the rest really registered after an initial reading. That said, this broadsheet was an interesting alternative to the typical minicomics anthology, allowing artists the opportunity to go big with a theme vague enough to allow them to tell the sort of story they wanted.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Couple of Notable Fundraising Sales

The great Skip Williamson lost his home in the Vermont floods recently. He's suggesting that readers who might be interested in helping should buying a copy of his autobiography. I consider Williamson to be one of the greatest of the underground comics artists, up there in the same company as Crumb and Justin Green. As a stylist, he has no peer, with his cartoony and psychedelic drawings having influenced dozens of other cartoonists and animators. He's been both political (with his own work and illustrating stuff like Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book) and earthy (working in porn for years). Please consider helping him in his time of need.

Artist, critic, raconteur and all-around great guy Frank Santoro has moved from Pittsburgh to New Mexico and needs to raise funds to support himself so he can draw his next comic. Rather than go to Kickstarter, he's decided to sell off his collection of weird comics. Anyone who's gone through his curated back issue boxes at a show will know he always sells some gems. In addition to selling comics (and this time around, it's weird examples from the 80s black & white explosion), he's also selling a sketch he's made of that comic's cover. Fans of Santoro and weird comics should check it out.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Graphic Classics: Poe and Christmas

Let's take a look at some recent volumes from the Graphic Classics line.

Edgar Allan Poe is the fourth, expanded edition of the very first volume from Graphic Classics. The results are a mixed bag, due in part to the difficulty in translating the atmosphere of dread and madness essential to Poe's work into comics form. One example is Rick Geary's adaptation of "The Tell-Tale Heart", one of Poe's most intense, gripping stories. While Geary's rendering is spot-on and suitably creepy, the short adaptation lacks the same impact of the short story, in part because this abbreviated version doesn't have the same tense, crazy momentum of the short story. The story puts the reader in the grip of the narrator's madness, whereas the reader is merely an observer in the comic. On the other hand, the straightforward rendering by David Hontiveros & Carlo Vergara of "The Pit and the Pendulum" makes the story clearer, in part because it's less about the mental status of its protagonist than it is about a particular environment. There story fairly cries out for a visual component.

Art by Matt Howarth

The other problem with this volume is that a number of Poe's stories have a certain sameness to them, differentiated only by length and tone. A number of his characters wind up in the grip of madness, frequently precipitated by bouts of alcoholism ("William Wilson", "The Black Cat"). Two stories feature people being bricked behind a wall, be it alive or dead ("The Black Cat", "A Cask of Amontillado"). "The Tell-Tale Heart" famously features the titular body part driving the narrator mad after he commits murder. Two stories concern premature burial, with "The Fall of the House of Usher" the more elaborate of the two. That story was adapted by Matt Howarth (of Those Annoying Post Bros fame) and he brought his trademark manic energy to it, with lots of hatching and cross-hatching in play to emphasize the dread the title house invokes. The other such story, "The Premature Burial", had pleasingly neurotic-looking art by Joe Ollmann, best known now for his Drawn & Quarterly work. Milton Knight's "Never Bet the Devil Your Head" was actually one of the more successful adaptations in the book, partly because it didn't try to match Poe's tone of dread and instead went to a more broadly humorous interpretation of a boastful bet gone horribly wrong.

If the book of Poe adaptations was uneven, the Christmas Classics book was remarkable in its consistency. What's impressive is that this volume provided a wider range of tones and storytelling styles than the Poe book did, even if the subject would seem to be far more restrictive. Pomplun was aided by once again publishing a full-color volume, which has helped the most recent volumes in the Graphic Classics series really pop. He also did a nice job cherry-picking a couple of traditional Christmas pieces (like A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens and A Visit From St. Nicholas by Clement Moore) with more obscure pieces by famous authors like Willa Cather, O. Henry, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He also gave the artists some room to let their stories breathe, with page counts ranging from 8 to 46.

The Dickens adaptation, by Alex Burrows and Micah Farritor, was a fairly straightforward,
painted version of the familiar story. The story retained more of the flavor of the original Dickens story than most adaptations tend to. The Rich Rainey/Hunt Emerson adaptation of Doyle's "The Blue Carbuncle" was an absolute delight, thanks to the great Emerson's cartoony, angular features. Sherlock Holmes stories do quite well as comics, thanks to their emphasis on plot and action, but Emerson added a level of visual wit that made this especially memorable. The O.Henry story's eventual plot twist was more restrained than usual for his stories, and Cynthia Martin's naturalistic style was well-suited for it. Willa Cather's crazy story about the White Bear who protects Santa's reindeer and the vicious Werewolf Dog who menaced them was heightened by the occasionally lurid colors of Evert Geradts, striking an interesting balance between comics and storybook graphics.

Art by Cynthia Martin

Fitzgerald's "A Luckless Santa Claus" was written when he was just sixteen years old and displays a wit and sophistication that was far beyond his years. Simon Gane was up to the task of drawing a snowy New York City near the turn of the 20th century, and the result is a treat for fans of Fitzgerald who may not be familiar with this story. Finally, Pomplun unearthed a fascinating story by an obscure 19th century author named Fitz-James O'Brien that was a sort of proto-fantasy/conspiracy story about a group of villains plotting to kill all the Christian children in a city with toys animated by evil spirits. O'Brien lacked the sophistication and subtlety of great authors like Cather or Fitzgerald, but his pulp storytelling instincts were quite sharp and added a wicked edge to a collection of stories about Christmas. Pomplun is really on a roll with his most recent volumes and is getting the most out of adapting these stories as true comics, rather than just illustrated text.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Minis From Across The USA

Most of the minis I receive tend to come from comics strongholds like Brooklyn and Portland. Of late, I've received minis from some unlikely sources. Here's a quick survey.

Foie Gras #1 & 3, by Edie Fake. Fake is the "minicomics sommelier" of the excellent Quimby's in Chicago, a city with a traditionally vibrant comics scene that is now spawning a younger generation of cartoonists. Fake's Foie Gras minis feature art appropriated from the old Joy of Cooking books, focusing in on desire and transformation (the twin subjects Fake usually tends to be interested in). Fake adds other images to the clear-line drawings of food cutting, preparation and assemblages while adding commentary that is frequently hilarious. In Fake's sexually charged fantasy comic Gaylord Phoenix, the penises of his characters are depicted as tubes--the sort of spiraling tubes that one sees folded and handled in The Joy of Cooking. So there's a superficial level of humor to be found here (like when a fist is thrust into a puckering hole in a pie), but there's also tenderness to be found in the commentary, as well as a commentary on how and why we adorn ourselves and what this means. (That's especially true of #3, which contains a number of highly elaborate food preparations with commentary hinting at why we play dress-up.) Of course, Fake turns these minis into beautiful little art objects, with silkscreened and brightly colored covers. These comics are an interesting take on comics-as-poetry.

The Dudes, by Alex Schubert. Schubert is from Kansas City, MO, and these three stories mix slacker lowlifes, a biographical comic about two weird brothers, and a set of gags about "famous last words." The title story is the most interesting one in this short comic, following a group of guys who hang around in parking lots to pass the time, with one claiming to be in a gang called "The Dudes", allowing him carte blanche in their narrow world. There's a relaxed, almost benign sleaziness at work in this short story, aided by Schubert's simple character design. His "famous last words" strip takes actual last statements from various historical figures (the "uh-oh" quote from space shuttle Challenger captain Michael Smith was especially nasty) and piles them up, juxtaposing the funny, the poignant and the tragic. Overall, this feels like an old-fashioned kind of mini with mild ambitions. It's a dumping ground for ideas, scenarios and relaxed drawings, and Schubert makes the aimless, vaguely dangerous world of his slackers sleazily appealing. Schubert would fit comfortably in an anthology like Hotwire, and I hope to see more of his comics.
Sequential Vacation #1, by Sar Shahar. Shahar is from Los Angeles. This silent comic was a compelling read and the artist shows a great deal of promise. The comic centers around repetition and grids, as it follows a window cashier at a fast-food restaurant through his life. The book starts with nine straight panels of the world outside his window: different faces from different cars who all want the same thing. We then follow the character to a club, where he waits in line (lines and waiting are also repeating motifs in the comic) to get in, but is slump-shouldered and miserable until a young woman wearing huge sunglasses takes him by the hand and they wind up sleeping together. For him, it's a transformative experience. For her, it's another day, a fact hammered home when she drives through his line at the fast-food joint. She's not just another face in the window for him, but she very much views him as an "object-at-hand", a person who does a job. There's evidence that him being a fast-food worker turns her off, given that she seems to lead an idly rich life (going to a matinee of the hilarious named movie "Motorcycle Vs Helicopter II" while he's working, perhaps breaking a date they had set up earlier to see the film at night). When he meets a new girl who happens to start working at his story who looks a bit like her, it all seems like fate will break his way--until she tragically is killed and he has to clean up the mess. (That bit of commentary on the dehumanization of minimum wage workers was especially affecting.) He winds up with another lookalike in the end, but it's unclear what will come of it. Unlike the other comics in this survey, this story feels closely tied to the locale of the author. The city feels like LA, with its car culture, emphasis on grids and night life. The repeating visual motifs are clever and striking, and the stark use of black & white reminds me a bit of what Robert Sergel does in Eschew. Shahar is not as clean a draftsman as Sergel, especially in terms of character design, but the page composition shows an artist who clearly thinks a lot about images and how they carry a narrative. I'm eager to see Shahar's next comic.

Brain Dead Phylum #1 & #2, by Kyle Nolan. Nolan is from Davenport FL, which is near Orlando. It's obvious, however, that he's heavily inspired by Fort Thunder-era comics, bringing a slightly more jokey version of the Brian Ralph/Mat Brinkman/Brian Chippendale aesthetic to his minis, the sort of thing that Sam Gaskin does. The backgrounds are dense in the way they create a solid environment, with every brick and stone drawn in detail. Nolan's not nearly in their class in terms of his draftsmanship, so some of the pages look a bit wonky in terms of their rendering, distracting a bit from the overall visual effect. Fortunately, this comic is played strictly for laughs, so the occasional slapdash drawing is ameliorated by the gags at hand. The comic follows a couple of robots out in "The Sludge Pit" who desperately need some coffee and go on a quest to get it. Their dialogue is amusing and contains random influences to pop culture (some of it outdated), like one robot being named Parker Lewis and another asking what Survivorman would do. Their spaceships are oddly named after brands of cheap beer. The second issue brings them to "Salt City", wherein they encounter a not-exactly-subtle parody of Mormons awaiting their arrival. What I like most about these comics are the shapes of the protagonist robots; their character design compels the reader to look at them move across the page, thanks to their appealing boxiness. I get the sense that Nolan is throwing every idea he has against the wall to see what sticks in this series and will hopefully refine his style, narrative focus and humor as he progresses from issue to issue.

Class Reunion #2 & #5, by Charlie Newton. Newton is from Birmingham, AL, which is not exactly a comics hotbed, but these minis also show heavy influence from underground and Fort Thunder style comics. Each of these comics is very short (six pages, plus front and back covers), but they have a strong visual impact. Issue #2 features a character that's a cross between an octopus and Humpty-Dumpty sitting at a table and hallucinating all sorts of horrible thing, including a brain oozing out of the bottom of a skyscraper. This silent comic is about the ways our minds can wander to the most grotesque of images. #5 features two characters with enormous heads having a conflict over waffles, only for one of them to be pursued by a waffle-hungry monster. There's also a wordless comic involving one of Newton's blobby characters trying to find out where "the delicious" is, starting a dialogue with the man in his TV set about it. There's no real attempt at true narrative in these comics, but rather a stringing together of emotional, visceral images. Newton doesn't have total control over his line and page design, so the going can be rough at times, but his draftsmanship is good enough to provoke the reader into paying attention, even if the rewards are small at this point. Certainly, his comics are interesting for his strange point of view, and I suspect they will become increasingly coherent but complex.