Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Sequart Reprints: Peter Conrad, Superior Showcase

I happen to love comics anthologies, in all their beautiful sloppiness. I love panning for gold in them, hoping to get at least one great story even in an anthology that's otherwise a waste of time. I enjoy seeing authors stretched to put something together for a themed anthology, to be put out of their comfort zone either by the length of the story or its theme. In the history of comics, there have been so many significant talents that were discovered in anthologies, so much important history made. I especially enjoy reading minicomics anthologies, as so many artists get their first significant exposure (such as it is) in these venues.

One advantage of self-published, self-constructed minicomics is that the formal and design possibilities are almost limitless. They can become as much art object as a vehicle for delivering narratives. Peter Conrad has done a lot of exploring with both form and design for his comics. His best known was a comic he affixed to a Rubik's Cube, where every twist and turn created different stories. It wasn't just an ingenious idea, it actually made for some good comics, because he took the time to break down every panel and how it might connect to every other panel.

Along these lines, Conrad conceived of an anthology where every artist had to draw their story using their non-dominant hand. I was intrigued by such a severe formal constraint, and it was Conrad's aim to get each artist out of their comfort zone. What was interesting is that a number of similar themes popped up from story to story, including twins, mirrors, and other states of not quite being oneself. Conrad's formal constraint wound up producing a set of stories that fit well together, but was not burdened by the sort of repetitiveness that a thematic constraint often brings.

Highlights from On The Other Hand include Josh Neufeld's "Josh And I", Diana Tamblyn's "Cat Scratch Fever", John Hankiewicz's "Left Side/Right Lung", K. Thor Jensen's "Business Plans", Luciano Cruzado's "Secrets" and most especially Renee French's "Tooth Fairy". Neufeld's story is told from the perspective of his mirror twin, wondering about the odd person he sees in the mirror every day. Using his other hand loosened up his normally fine line considerably, adding a nervous energy that seemed to suit the personality of his mirror self. Tamblyn wrote about a cat whose "bad" paw caused it to get into all sorts of mischief. It seemed a sly way of talking about how difficult it was to work with her "bad" hand. The subject matter of Hankiewicz's story fit right into the rest of his typically cryptic tales, but still meshed nicely with the overall theme. There's his typical sense of foreboding here, about a man who can't sleep on his left side without his right lung causing him agony. Hankiewicz is another artist who normally employs a tight and spare line, which belies the tension beneath. Here, the nervousness and claustrophobia is all on the surface with an almost rubbery quality.

Jensen's story is a bit of autobiography: an embarrassing, drunken night. It's funny and the crudeness of his drawing looks perfect in this context. Cruzado's entry is perhaps the most beautiful-looking piece, suggesting that he may be ambidextrous. Regardless, it's a creepy yet touching account of a young boy finding a roomful of secrets and dreams, where he learns the most important secret of his young life. Finally, there's the insanity that is Renee French. Blessed with some of the best chops in the business, her disturbing-yet-charming style remains intact with her off hand. The story tells us what the Tooth Fairy really looks like, and it's not pretty.

Many of On The Other Hand's stories stayed with me for awhile, which is unusual for an anthology. I think part of that was due to the strength of the writing. While most of the stories clearly showed how much the author struggled to even get them on the page, it was ultimately their themes and execution that made this a memorable experience.

Turning to a thematic constraint, Superior Showcase #1 ($3.95, AdHouse Books) spun out of Chris Pitzer's beautiful Project: Superior anthology. That one was pretty simple: artists told stories about superheroes they way they wanted to. Whether it was superheroes as romance, straight-ahead stories, slice-of-life or humor, the results were at worst amusing and at best quite charming. Showcase is a "regular" comic book that continues the theme, and the three artists featured turn in very different pieces. The ultra-versatile Nick Bertozzi gives us "Super-Mart". In TOP TEN, Alan Moore gave us a city where everyone has superpowers and wears a costume, so that those two things no longer serve to differentiate members of the populace. "Super-Mart" works on a similar level, only with the more mundane setting of a convenience store. Mike Dawson shows us the fate of "Ace-Face", a retired superhero turned college professor. When he decides to stop a brutal vigilante, the real world catches up to him. Finally, Dean Trippe (with John Campbell) brings us a tale of "Butterfly", the son of a Superman-like character. He meets up with a disaffected Robin-like sidekick named Birdie, and they encounter Hipster Ghosts on Halloween.

The stories vary in tone, with Dawson's becoming unexpectedly grim. Trippe's is sweet and frothy, while Bertozzi's is absurd with a healthy helping of smart-ass. The book is aided by a gorgeous Hope Larson cover and publisher Chris Pitzer's impeccable design sense. I like superheroes and enjoy seeing artists put them to uses beyond simple action. What I've enjoyed about Pitzer's vehicles is their sense of fun. Superhero comics are really not very good at dealing with "serious" subjects; the inherent ridiculousness of the genre tends to make attempts at seriousness collapse. This is not to say that one can't do character work in a superhero setting, just that the artist has to have a grasp on the absurdity of that sort of world.

Finally comes, a miniscomics version of Conrad's webstrip Paper Dummy, which Conrad describes as a cross between a blog and a comic strip. What this winds up meaning is that formally, every entry is a comic strip. It's just that Conrad doesn't feel constrained to stick to a particular genre. Some days, it's gags. Other days, it's slice-of-life stories. And on other days, it's just little observations: things he's noticed in nature, or odd things that he's heard. The punchline here is that I'm reviewing a minicomics version of an online comic strip, which of course provides certain constraints of its own: the size of the paper, the order in which I am to read the strips, etc. While there are some web cartoonists who are uninterested in being published in "real" books, there are plenty who happily view the web as a great place to get the kind of daily / weekly / monthly exposure they might get from more traditional (but hard to obtain) means of serialization. After reaching a certain critical mass, they can simply use a service like lulu.com to whip up print-on-demand collections. For artists with more clout, they can cut a deal with either an established comics publisher or even a "real" book publisher; there seem to be more and more of these kinds of deals every day.

Of course, that's a whole 'nother story. Conrad's own contribution has lots of great gags. I especially liked the story about his parents moving to California and him getting them a TiVo and subscription to Wired so as to fit in; staying awake on the road by watching movies in other cars; and a dog reading a book called "Where The Ball Went" in bed. My favorite gag was "That Tingle Means It's Working", depicting a man with his hair on fire. The strips definitely have that sketchbook feel, looking quickly drawn. That aids in their immediacy, but their visual component is not all that compelling. I like a loose style that contains a certain energy, but I also appreciate the craft that goes into honing a line to perfection. The beauty of the online sketchbook is that an artist can do both: draw something every day to keep their skills in practice and get the instant gratification of having the world as an audience; and working on that long-range, slow project that can take years to finish.

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