Thursday, December 29, 2011

Minicomics Round-Up: Spina, Robinson, Solomon, Kirby, Ullman/Brown

This batch of minicomics is a true grab-bag and is hard to pin down to any one particular genre:

Fight, by Sam Spina. This comic won a Xeric grant for Spina and is not unlike a slightly gentler version of Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit. While Spina's diary strip may be prosaic at times, his fiction has always been extra-crazy in response. He comes up with wacky premises, carries them through to their logical extremes, and then bombards the reader with uncomfortable gags along the way. Fight features a world where certain creatures have been bioengineered for specific tasks. This comic focuses on humanoid creatures bred only to fight for entertainment. The plot follows a creature called Fight, his downfall and eventual triumph over the female Super Fight that defeats him via trickery, her psychopathic offspring that forms as a result of their brief coupling, and lots of battles along the way. Spina loves gross-out gags, like when Super Fight gives birth to a bounding creature or the truly revolting Boobstadon, a sort of walking set of teats with a brain that is forcibly milked. The scene where an overeager farmer fondles it lasciviously is hilariously uncomfortable, but Spina tops it with Super Fight's child unexpectedly ripping it (and everything else in its path) to shreds. Spina's line is simple and energetic, and the mini-sized format helps add a density and urgency to each page. It's definitely an interesting step for an artist still developing his voice as a humorist.

Box Office Poison #78, by Alex Robinson. This minicomic represents Robinson's failed attempt to revive his first comics series, as he was looking for a new direction after some false starts. He has said that he thought it might be easy and fun to see what his characters were up to a few years after the conclusion of the series (which of course was collected by Top Shelf in one massive tome), but he abandoned this path as well. This mini represents a few pages from that attempt, packaged as though Robinson had never stopped doing the series as minicomics. It's clever and a delightful little gift for fans of the series. All of the BOP trademarks are there: interstitial stories focusing on one character, character surveys, a guest pin-up, a letters page, and a page from another abandoned Robinson project, a sequel to Lower Regions. Seeing some of Robinson's tricks like temporarily abandoning a realistic style for cartoony anger or filling up pages with thought balloons was also quite welcome. That said, I can understand why he abandoned the project: he wasn't saying anything new. He had a fairly definitive ending for BOP, and while it might have been tempting to see if protagonist Sherman Davies could be rescued from a hellish existence with his girlfriend Dorothy and find a healthy relationship, I thought that originally downbeat ending was a more appropriate way to leave the character. It was still nice to see the sprawl of characters even in this short minicomic; this is where Robinson has always excelled as a writer. That's why I prefer BOP and especially Tricked! over Too Cool To Be Forgotten; being able to explore a number of different emotional states and personae seems to be precisely the kind of challenge that pushes Robinson to evolve.

Our Fantastic Universe, by Lizzee Solomon. This odd little comic is the black & white version of a story that's going to be published in a collection dedicated to extraterrestrial sex. This version puts the emphasis on Solomon's grotesque linework, balanced against the amusingly sedate and even detached narration of the "host" of this "series" about alien sexuality. The story details the mating habits of cactus-like creatures called Milchigs and tiny, airborne creatures called Fleart, as the two species have a synergistic relationship. In pulsating, undulating and throbbing detail, Solomon shows us both the typical, nature-show style side of their sexuality as well as some unexpected aspects of their lives. The Fleart, once ingested by the Milchigs, engage in frottage. The Milchigs, once engorged by having ingested Fleart, engage in an extreme form of S&M that not all of them survive. The effect is a variation on body horror, where instead of physical transformation being a source of fear or dread, it's a source for pleasure. For the reader, it's no less strange an experience to read and just as unsettling.

King For A Day, by Rob Kirby. This comic is an interesting departure for comics veteran Kirby, best known for his slice-of-life relationship comics as well as for helming the queer-themed anthology Three. This is a silent comic about a man who is literally shat upon who then finds a crown. That suddenly inspires instant worship and admiration from everyone he happens to come upon. Of course, this sad sack character can't quite end up with a happy ending, even in his own dreams, and Kirby takes great delight in piling on a series of catastrophes, humiliations and general physical comedy. His art is simple and classically cartoony, with rubbery character design that expands into full-out exaggeration during certain scenes. The way he varies line thickness is a big key to the success of the comic; a thicker line usually indicates something significant happening, but that slight variation also makes the lines comprising his characters pop out on the page. The result is a delightfully charming comic that makes the most of a thin premise thanks to funny drawings on nearly every page.

Old-Timey Hockey Tales, by Rob Ullman & Jeffrey Brown. This is a comics rarity: a straightforward series of stories about sports. It helps that cartoonists Brown & Ullman chose to write about the most visceral of major sports, ice hockey and that its early participants were kind of crazy. The design of this mini is typically handsome, thanks to Ullman's eye for detail. Ullman selected items that were more anecdotes than narratives, like a strip about Maurice "Rocket" Richard being banned from the NHL and the ensuing series of riots, or a tight-fisted owner resisting the league mandate to put the names of players on the back of jerseys and protesting with names that were the same color as the uniforms themselves. Brown favored more sustained narratives, like when how the Detroit Red Wings wound up playing a group of prisoners; how one player got revenge on a coach who tried to trade him; and why anyone who messed with Gordie Howe was an idiot. Ullman's story about the great goalie Terry Sawchuk (originally published years ago in an SPX anthology) is still one of his best, documenting Sawchuk's skill as a player and how awful he was as a person. At 28 pages, this mini left me wanting more, especially because the two cartoonists have art styles and approaches to narrative that are so different. I'd love to see an all-sports comics anthology; Dan Zettwoch has done interesting work about basketball & baseball (if I had a million dollars, I'd commission Zettwoch to create an illustrated version of the book Loose Balls, an oral history of the ABA), while Dennis Eichorn has written a number of stories about football. This would be truly "mainstream" work, given America's love of sports.

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