Monday, July 8, 2013

Two New Anthologies From Hic & Hoc

The Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humor, Volume One: The United States, edited by Lauren Barnett and Nathan Bulmer. In my idle fantasies where I suddenly become a multi-millioniare, I dream of funding and publishing a cutting-edge humor anthology featuring the best of new and old talent. The Illustrated Journal of Humor is remarkably close to my vision of what that anthology would look like. Editors Barnett and Bulmer are funny cartoonists in their own right, and they've assembled a book that has a lot of key veterans as well as younger talent. Their "Note From the Editors On Humor" is one of two expertly-executed fart jokes in this book, and it's rare that scatological humor in general makes me laugh at all.

The book opens with a fantastic Noah Van Sciver piece that positions one of his typical sad-sack characters who is sick and can't get sleep. Suddenly, there's an insistent narrator who questions him and urges him to look at the naked one-eyed monster in his bedroom, rubbing his genitals all over the character's beloved and important stuff. Lines like "It's true. You do indeed have a gun. It's right there being rubbed all over a dick" made me laugh out loud. There's also plenty of anti-humor and meta-humor, like Bort's hacky-punchline busting series of strips, or most especially Martha Keavney's "Buster" strips. Keavney has been a long-time favorite of mine, thanks to her Badly-Drawn Comics and Spelt-Rite Comics, and she's certainly someone I'd be eager to publish. The "Buster" strip is a hilarious take-off on hacky pet comics/sit-coms, only it's from the point of view of aliens with a pet human. Keavney's understanding of the timing needed to make such mimicry work is incredible.

Some of the artists, like Nikki Burch, use an exaggerated visual style to tell a simple joke. Others, like Sam Spina's excellent "Pern", use a simplified style to relentlessly pound the reader with a series of jokes associated with a couple having sex. The jokes are mostly in the dialogue, with the exception of the screwed-up angry face of the woman when they're indulging in "age play" and she slaps him and snarls "Don't you EVER talk back to mama.". It's hilarious because it's so incongruous. Of course, there's also the king of minimalist gag work, Sam Henderson.  He's another obvious choice for such an anthology, and his mix of visual gags and puns always deliver. Then there are strips that are funny because they exaggerate everyday situations, like going shopping for clothes. Madeline Flores' page of simple but exaggerated drawings and screaming things like "This shirt makes my tits look GOOOOOD!" was another stand-out in a book that was incredibly dense with great contributions. The same is true for Jane Mai's outrageous page of designing men's lingerie, slapping packages into "snake" or "elephant" and humiliating her man into getting a "shame boner" before she simply goes to sleep.

Not every strip uses exaggeration in its visuals, nor do they go for strict gags. For example, Grant Snider's comics are contemplative and amusing, where every panel is funny in its own way without building up to something larger. Dustin Harbin's "Lives of the Generals" similarly starts with a simple premise and riffs on it for panel after panel in his crisp and cartoony style. Sam Sharpe's strip about a boy's relationship with a beloved superhero of his youth carrying on into the bigger questions is more bittersweet than laugh out loud, even as the conceit of the strip (the answer to the question asked in every panel is "no"). Julia Wertz's amazing "Life Like This" equates being a "funny" cartoonist to a vaudeville act that's booed off the stage when she tries to discuss something serious. Despite (and really, because of) the gruesome ending, Wertz still manages to throw in a punchline. It really is her entire career boiled down to a single bit of brilliance. There's also solid work by Jeff Lok, Dakota McFadzean, Patt Kelley (pretty much the ultimate fart joke), Nathan Stapley and others. Even the worst strips in here are still solid, as Barnett & Bulmer both did a fine job of balancing the absurd, the grotesque, the whimsical and the flat-out funny. This is a smash-hit success.

Hic & Hoc Presents: Unknown Origins & Untimely Ends, edited by Emi Gennis. The titular subjects are objects of fascination for Gennis, who frequently writes about weird but true deaths in her comics. This anthology is the comics version of shows like In Search Of... or Unsolved Mysteries, further combined with urban or folk legends particular to certain areas. As is generally the case in such instances, I found that the stories that had more of a foot in reality were more interesting than the stories that relied on the potential of ghosts, monsters, UFOs and other some ephemera. For example, Jackie Roche's "The Leatherman" is a very humane look at an enigmatic man who made the rounds on foot in northeast America. Aaron Whitaker's "The Monster With 21 Faces" is one of several stories regarding unsolved crimes; this one was about a group that kidnapped the head of a candy company, let him go, threatened to poison his product and then later taunted the helpless police department. "The Voynich Manuscript", by the always excellent Julia Gfrorer, turns her spooky storytelling style on a mysterious manuscript that has never been decrypted. I also thought "Goo" by Jason Bradshaw and "Meat Shower" by Noah Van Sciver were funny and weird examples of strange stuff falling out of the sky for no discernible reason. Though it crossed over into urban legend territory, Tod C. Parkhill's "Polybius", is an elegant and creepy tale. It's about a legendary arcade game similar to the vector graphics action of Tempest and the nightmarish effect it had on some gamers, and it's done in that same vector line drawing style. Though the story devolves into men-in-black style conspiracy theories, it was stylish and just credible enough to be of interest.

In the "Untimely Ends" section, there are plenty of stories about unsolved murders, people who mysteriously disappeared, death that are totally unexplained, and certain famous people. WIthoutcomingout and saying it, for example, Phillip Sevy links the death of a young would-be actress named Elizabeth Smart to Orson Welles, connecting the dots in such a way as to explain why he left Hollywood, why he became so depressed and why his career never recovered. Lizz Lunney's take on the influence and death of Rasputin is played for laughs thanks to her cartooning style, alleviating the heavy sense of dread and mystery that most of the other stories in the book are burdened with. I appreciated the thoroughness with which Emi Gennis and JT Yost approached their murder-mystery stories, sticking as close to the facts as they were known while acknowledging the crazier theories surrounding their cases. Jenn Woodall and Sam Alden approached their subjects (a haunted forest, a ghost ship) in a more poetic manner, relying heavily on illustrations as a way of juxtaposing rather than simply guiding the text. For the most part, the very specific voice of each cartoonist was turned down a bit in service of their anecdotes, which makes this anthology something to pursue if you're interested in the subject rather than a particular cartoonist. 

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