Sunday, March 9, 2014

31 Days of Short Reviews #9: Jeff Zwirek

Jeff Zwirek's Kickstarter-powered collection of his Burning Building Comix minicomics series deftly takes on the challenge of "stacking" the original comics in a manner that makes the reading experience of it unique. It's a book that's formatted landscape style, but is meant to be read sideways, and from the bottom up. Each row represents a different tenant on a different floor in an apartment building that catches on fire. The reader is meant to start at the bottom "floor", reading left to right as they turn the pages, and then turn back to the beginning and start at the next floor. Each story is self-contained, as they describe how each tenant manages to escape and the perils they face in doing so, but some stories are more closely linked than others.

Zwirek's figure drawing is straight out of the playbook conceived of by fellow Chicago residents Chris Ware and Ivan Brunetti. Brunetti's influence is especially pronounced, with the squat characters with oversized heads and generally cartoony, exaggerated forms. Brunetti is an acknowledged friend and mentor of Zwirek, but beyond the easy figure comparison, Brunetti's more profound influence is that of silent problem-solving on the page. Each of the character's stories is told without using dialog or caption, with the exception of pictorial word balloons. It's an excellent method, because it strips away all that is unnecessary on the page and allows the reader to figure out what's happening in each story before and as each apartment catches on fire. It's especially effective because the physical action in each panel is propulsive and panicky, a combination that leads to a number of funny sight gags. At the same time, Zwirek puts in an astonishing amount of background detail in every panel as a way of offering clues as to each character's life and even possible connections to other tenants in the building.

Most of the strips rely on easy-to-understand sight gag jokes, like the dog trying to rouse his sleeping elderly owner or the obese man trying to squeeze out of the apartment. The bit where he hopes on a long-abandoned exercise bike in order to desperately lose a pound or two to slide out of the apartment was especially amusing. The tale of a Satanist trying with a gas-masked topped goat's head on his wall is even funnier, as he thinks he's summoned real hellfire after a ritual fizzled out, and the masks of the firemen build a truly inspired visual gag. Zwirek ties everything together with a love story in the final two "stories" of the building, as two people in relationships that have just failed realize that they're in love with each other when the fire builds--and both run to save the other, only to find the other isn't there. It's propulsive screwball comedy at its best, and the thicker panel weights indicating a flashback (which Zwirek helpfully points out in the book's notes) seamlessly lead the reader along this narrative path. The book is one long formal gimmick, but it's an inspired gimmick that's perfectly designed and executed. That includes the use of color in this edition, which is restrained, tasteful and attractive--a perfect complement to the frantic nature of the narrative itself.

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