Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Oddball and Not-Quite-Comics

A number of comics I receive resist easy categorization and many of them are barely recognizable as comics.  Let's take a look at some of them.

Jesus Needs Help, by David Germain.This is a strange little book that is essentially a heavy-handed anti-censorship screed. It features a group of monkeys representing a variety of anti-censorship sources preventing Jesus from reading the Beatitudes (aka "The Sermon on the Mount").  On a surface level, it looks like it was drawn using a tablet, as each of the characters looks like a frozen still from a cartoon. Drawing the various censorship opponents as monkeys and equating each of their positions speaks to the artist's lack of subtlety and nuance regarding this issue. On the other hand, I can understand and respect the idea of a free-speech absolutist in the name of art and self-expression (which is his argument), though how that translates to a sermon (a proscriptive lecture, not a work of art) seems to muddy the waters a bit. Equating feminists and "Black Panthers" with Nazis is also a broad brush stroke that is so hyperbolic that it approaches nonsense, especially since he doesn't exactly equip his "monkeys" with anything resembling a rational argument. If one agrees that it's not rational or socially responsible to yell "fire" in a crowded theater, then one can begin to actually debate the limits of free speech. Even in the strictest libertarian sense, there can be speech designed to be fraudulent or imply the use of force--which of course are the two libertarian bugaboos. This comic doesn't really work as a form of satire, a coherent philosophical argument or a form of entertainment.

Catch-Up #1 Bonus Round, edited by Josh Burggraf, Mark Hensel and PB Kain. This is the comics/illustration publication that went with the first issue of the literary magazine Catch-Up. While out of print, it's well worth tracking down. It opens with the surreal art of Jeffrey Meyer, who uses collage that features photos, drawings, paintings and cartoony work in an interesting fashion. Much of the comic is influenced by the Fort Thunder school of monster-making and having the environment drive the narrative as characters explore space. Pat Aulisio uses the detail-packed version of this style in his story, with almost no white space used. PB Kain takes the opposite route, using a minimalist line and an abundance of white space in depicting a battle between a Sea-Beast and Sky Lumberjacks. Malachi Ward eschews any interest in story in "Cave", preferring to solely focus on the details in a given environment. Katie Skelly's "Space Girl", with distorted limbs and a galaxy emanating from her cigarette, is a perfect example of the psychedelic glamor at which she excels. The issue's true stand-out feature is Lane Milburn's "Perceived Obsolescence", a pastiche of pulp and Golden Age and EC sci-fi tropes (there are touches of Wally Wood to be found) that eventually turns into a modern, satirical statement on corporate greed. Milburn's gorgeous, sumptuous use of color is deliberately garish at points, all the better to highlight the absurdity of the situation and the ways in which the common man is hopelessly manipulated by those with money and power. The production values and editorial care taken in this anthology make it a cut above the average collection of young talent.

Drunken Master #10 and #12, edited by Kiyoshi "Lucky" Nakazawa. These zines are filled with the kind of energy and on-the-scene presence that remind me a lot of the early issues of Motor Booty. Like that classic magazine from the 80s and 90s, the editor is a cartoonist who writes and draws about his interests and recruits others to do the same. This includes mixed martial arts, strange bands like Ninja Academy, cauliflower ears and things local to Los Angeles. His own comics range from the MMA saga "Prize" (an earnest take on just what it takes to be a fighter) and his humor strip "Won Ton Not Now", both of which bear his loose, expressionist style that pulses with energy. These zines are personal and intimate, with lots of references to Nakazawa's own life and photos from events around town. I especially enjoyed his interview with MMA battler Josh Barnett, a savage fighter who loves anime, manga, heavy metal, Love and Rockets and toys. There's an ease and intimacy in the interview that comes from Nakazawa's obvious admiration for Barnett, but this doesn't stop him from asking tough questions about performance enhancing drugs. The zines are a little short of professional, as the layouts are decidedly DIY and spelling errors abound. None of this matters all that much as Nakazawa and his friends seem to have the pulse of interesting alt-culture in LA and genuinely love comics. If you love zines that reflect the passion of their editors, then Drunken Master is well worth a read no matter what your interests happen to be.

December 3rd, 1967: An Alien Encounter, by Michael Jasorka. One can't help but love this fastidiously-designed and entirely unironic transcription of one man's encounter with a UFO and its denizens. The late 60s and early 70s saw a rash of UFO fever across the country, as any number of people talked about seeing mysterious objects, time lags, etc. One Herbert Shirmer, a young police officer in Nebraska, happened to see the standard cigar-shaped craft with lights on patrol late at night, something that he reported to his chief. Jasorka dutifully documents all of this with newspaper accounts of the time, but this comic is most interesting because there's a CD that goes with it that features an interview with Shirmer. Jasorka comes right out and says that he believes Shirmer's story, and illustrates it in a style reminiscent of Steve Ditko.  It's not an out-and-out swipe, but rather a stylistic decision that makes the comic look like a Ditko-drawn monster comic from the early 60s. Shirmer relates that the details of what he saw didn't come out until he was put under deep hypnosis by the Air Force, which revealed that he was taken on board the ship by its humanoid pilots and shown where they were from, what they were doing on earth (collecting electricity) and how their craft worked--along with a lot of other things that he didn't understand.  Whether or not the story is true is not especially relevant to me as a reader; it was more interesting to hear Shirmer tell his narrative (for it surely is a narrative by this point in time) and how others treated him as a result. As a result of that one incident, Shirmer has lived the life of a man with a crazy story that he tells again and again. He is now inextricably bound to this account which he can never prove (nor can it be disproved), at the mercy of the scorn of his peers and only receives positive attention from the curious and the converted. It's a tragic story no matter how one looks at it.

Furreh Nuuz TeeVee, by Joe Meyer. This is a satire of a particular sub-strata of fan culture that doubles as a lifestyle choice: furries. Meyer is a willing participant in the culture, and they tend to be the ones who deliver the most vicious and accurate barbs. That's certainly true here, as Meyer dishes on drama in the online furry community (the internet adding a layer of crazy to the proceedings) and isn't afraid to name names, a fact that nearly got him banned from any number of places. Meyer is a skilled draftsman who loves dealing in the grotesque and excess in depicting events like furry conventions, but despite his annotations at the bottom of each strip, this comic is really just one long inside joke that only made sense at the time of publication on the web. As such, it's more interesting for anthropological reasons than for humorous ones, as the jokes so heavily reference specific people and events that they make little sense. And a joke that you have to explain with footnotes doesn't become any funnier to the uninitiated. Still, I was fascinated by the inside descriptions of the culture from someone who clearly appreciates it but isn't afraid to laugh at its own inherent ridiculousness.

Randy Packs, designed by Tony Ong. These are good old-fashioned trading cards wherein various alt-cartoonists and illustrators draw a particular sort of sex act, ranging from a Rusty Trombone to a Topeka Destroyer and all points in-between. The backs of the cards even combine to form one of two puzzles depicting further sex acts, but you have to collect them all in a series in order to see it. The real fun is to see which artists go literal in depicting frequently scatological and disgusting sex acts and which play them off as jokes (I enjoyed Sam Henderson's solution to depicting a Pearl Necklace). While there are plenty of artists known for drawing gross stuff on hand (Ivan Brunetti, Renee French and Johnny Ryan, to name three), there are some inspired unexpected choices as well, like Vanessa Davis and Steven Weissman. If you enjoy gross-out art or strange side-projects by your favorite alt-cartoonists, I'd check them out.

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