Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Catching Up With Koyama

Let's catch up with some slender new releases from one of my favorite publishers, Koyama Press.

The Big Team Society League Book Of Answers, by John Martz, Aaron Costain, Zach Worton and Steve Wolfhard (aka Team Society League). This is 44 pages worth of a relentless assault of filthy, hilarious scatological jokes. While the inside covers detail the names of the many, simply-drawn characters that appear in this dialogue-free book, that's a fake-out. The characters are ciphers in the tradition of Lewis Trondheim's Mister I and Mister O. That Trondheim influence can be felt strongly in the way the artists go to work at sublimely-crafted fart jokes like some master artisans of flatulence. The reason why this comic works so well is that the artists don't end their gags with a fart joke--they begin their gags with something gross and then go to great lengths to not only top that grossness, they wrap it around a nicely-crafted joke. While the drawing is kept simple, it's actually quite skilled. There's one joke where the main character cuts out his own bowels, stuffs a pizza inside so as to make him a pizza-like character for a kids' birthday party, and then starts bleeding as he stumbles out in front of a group of terrified kids. There's a recurring character who's an anthropomorphic hot dog whose "meat" keeps coming undone and falling on people. There's one strip that subverts every other--a character sucks down gallons worth of gasoline, lights a match, smokes a cigarette, and then walks away with nothing bad happening to him even as the reader is eager to see how it end. Stabbings, incineration, various things being shoved in and emerging out of asses, and general mayhem rule the day in these comics, and there's a sense of glee on these pages as the four jamming artists try to one-up each other. It's a genuine treat.

Eat More Bikes, by Nathan Bulmer. This is another slender book of gags, this time more of the absurd and conceptual variety. Bulmer's line is lean and scratchy; he gives it some solidity by using grey-scaling. I've long enjoyed Bulmer's weekly strip over at (in Tucker Stone's column), and his work actually gets funnier as you read more strips and come to understand his comedic rhythm. Like the Team Society League, he starts off with an inherently funny premise (Sheriff Duck, muscles in the shape of the Empire State Building, Children's Song Conspiracy Theories, etc) and then quickly escalates the humor in that situation (the best was having a mini King Kong climb the bicep tower and get shot down). Bulmer's other approach is to start with an utterly mundane premise (a party on a roof, a male stripper, an interview), quickly subvert reader expectations (often with violence) and then cap it with a perfect punchline. What's amazing is that Bulmer drew this entire 36 page comic in just a month--he's a relentless joke machine with a solid sense of craft.

Sunday In The Park With Boys, by Jane Mai.  This is a harrowing, unsparing account of one young woman's experience with anxiety, depression and sheer existential terror. Mai's rendering style ranges from a simplistic, cartoony line (almost like a manga character, complete with a sailor suit) to an intense, almost unbearable naturalism that oozes pain. If there's a credo to this comic, it's "I wish you could understand". Mai tries to get across what it's like to feel the way that she does on a regular basis. She often sees the world as inhabited by horrifying, multisegmented insectoid creatures. She frequently feels them on her own head, suffocating her, isolating her, causing her to become more and more desperate. The phrase she uses, "I wish I wasn't such an asshole" is the cry of depressives everywhere who feel like they don't deserve to be loved. The most devastating part of the book, and really the part that recapitulates Mai's many attempts at understanding herself, comes when she tries to describe how she feels when she's depressed.  She says it's like being in water, "complacent and happy" but "boring". Then you start to drown "and it gets harder to bounce back and stay afloat each time"; for a young person starting to get older, this is precisely what happens. What's interesting about this comic is Mai's use of whimsical storytelling devices that try to give her pep talks: her dog, a mermaid, a mirror, an eyepatch. It's like the entire book is really a dialogue between her depressive self and what is known in therapy as one's "wise mind"--the rational part of one's brain that knows how to help, if only the depressive self would listen. Mai's wise mind is just especially cleverly rendered in so many different ways, even as the specter of the all-controlling insect is such a dominant presence. The book ends on a hopeful note that is as much self-suggestion as it is an honest conclusion for this stunning piece of someone trying to get better in public through art. She and Lance Ward are my new favorite autobio cartoonists for the way they mix humor and unsparing self-examination.

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