Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Foxing Reprints #15: Oily Comics-- Stein, Zettwoch, Campbell, Runk

[Editor's note: this column first appeared two years ago, and the information about the grant below is no longer relevant.] 

In a bit of neat synchronicity, Chuck Forsman is seeking out a grant from Mission Main Street at precisely the same time I decided to write about his Oily Comics publishing concern for Mini-Sweep. This grant apparently gets decided by popular vote, so please click here (https://www.missionmainstreetgrants.com/business/detail/43895) to vote. Aside from being a talented cartoonist, Forsman has done impressive things with Oily. Most individual issues are just a dollar and are twelve pages long in traditional minicomics format. He's published a combination of well-known names and up-and-coming cartoonists, as well as more obscure favorites he deemed worthy of getting greater exposure.  October will be dedicated to taking a look at a number of Oily Comics.

Cut-Away Comics #1 and #2, by Dan Zettwoch. Zettwoch is a great example of a well-established cartoonist who was curious to take advantage of the Oily format for a short series. It's also fitting for Zettwoch, given his long history of self-publishing and a DIY point of view. A student of history and 19th century American history in particular, this comic follows a particular episode in the life of (as Zettwoch describes him) "woodsman/dandy/ornithologist" John James Audubon. He was fascinated in particular by a bird called the Chimney Swallow, and he discovered a huge, dead tree that served as the nest for hundreds of the birds. As always, Zettwoch is drawn to peculiar details of eccentric and inventive personalities, and Audubon certainly fit that bill on both counts. Zettwoch mixes his cartoony and exaggerated character design with his wonderfully precise cut-away diagrams of trees, the digestive system of swallows and lots of other information. It's a delightful examination of both a legendary figure in the field of ornithology as well as a clever series of solutions to finding out just how swallows lived in that tree. 

My Sincerest Apologies and Mrs. Connie Dutton, by Jessica Campbell. Campbell is a former employee of Drawn & Quarterly, and Forsman told me that she had a fantastic sense of humor. That's certainly on display in these two comics. My Sincerest Apologies is more a zine with pictures than a comic, but the lushness of her cursive script gives the zine a strong decorative quality with killer story-punchlines like "I'm sorry I told everyone that your new girlfriend is a child bride that you ordered off of the internet". The accompanying illustration is a google page with someone typing out the word "loneliness" on the screen. The "apologies" go ever further over the top in terms of both cruelty and ridiculousness.

Mrs. Connie Dutton's subtitle is "an adaptation of Spam". It's about a woman who goes to Nigeria after getting swindled out of money by a spammer and receives 1.5 million dollars from "Barrister George Alex of the Compensating Committee". Campbell's lettering her is a sort of fake digital font; it's all hand-lettered by made to look like a computer put it together. The writing has that same cadence, and her illustrations are wonderfully stiff. Once again, the Oily format is perfect for a short, punchy set of ideas that work best as individual objects. 

The Desk, by Leslie Stein. Stein is one of my favorite cartoonists, and I'm especially enjoying her more explicitly autobiographical stories about her childhood. The Desk is more of a brief, funny anecdote than something that evokes her usual themes of attempts at connection and continuous alienation. Yet, this story of her young autobio stand-in "Larry" building a reception desk in front of her room's doorway at home is just the sort of odd thing that young Larry is shown doing in Stein's other comics, especially as she cheerily says "Hello! Larry's room! Can I help you?" when someone approaches. This is all scuttled when she has to rush to the bathroom, though she puts away her components with a shrug and a smile. The tiny, three panel back-up strips featuring "Normal Folks" and "Weird Kid" are every bit as good, depicting the horror of banality and the wonders of kids being allowed to dance to the beats of their own drummers. Stein's character design is, as always, unique; her stippling technique is used sparingly but her eye for detail is astounding and key to establishing mood. 

Not A Horse Girl, by Marian Runk. ​It's hard to believe that this dense, warm and multi-layered comic is only twelve pages. The comic revolves around music and Runk's growing love of singing and playing the guitar, but she touches on her childhood, her personal relationships, her sexuality, her friendships, her attempts at songwriting and even throws in several funny anecdotes for good measure. She does more in twelve pages of memoir than most cartoonists do in a hundred. The repeated use of the phrase "buttery-soft" to describe chaps and later lingerie is both evocative and amusingly uncomfortable, especially with the wistful looks on the faces of the women recalling their items of clothing. Runk's line is simple but marvelously expressive, focusing mostly on facial expressions and the use of gesture. Runk's memories of her father (a symphony musician) not listening to any music around the house, going to weekly concerts and such as a force that shaped her relationship to music is recalled with no resentment but rather a sense of bemusement. The comic concludes with Runk writing her own song and sharing it with a fellow music-loving friend, with a URL provided to listen to it. 

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