Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Minis: Steinke, Intorcio, Mueller, Carlier

Mr. Wolf #3, by Aron Nels Steinke. Steinke has been doing autobio and kids' comics for a while, but when he hit upon doing a strip about being a teacher, he truly found his voice as a creator. Drawing himself and his students as anthropomorphic children added a level of abstraction that allowed him to address virtually any subject without too much seriousness. The success of this formula has earned him a book with Scholastic that will feature all-new material, but I imagine it will retain all of the elements that have made this series successful. Steinke is a remarkably sincere memoirist, which sometimes makes his other autobio comics feel stiff. Juxtaposed against dealing with a group of children (especially where he's acting as an authority figure), that stiffness has a perfect foil with the unpredictability of children. At the same time, this is very much a comic from his point of view, which sharply differentiates from a lot of slice-of-life comics for kids, which tend to be from the child's point of view. This issue collects a school year's worth of comics, which wound up being the last year at that particular school. That familiarity is something that Steinke makes good use of, even noting that his kids know his kids as well as he knows theirs. The tone throughout is pitch-perfect, as Steinke gleefully matches wits and quips with his students without losing control of his class. Steinke himself mixes confidence with self-doubt, but his own nature as a problem-solver prevents him from giving up. Steinke also has a keen ear for dialogue, especially transcribing choice bits from his kids, like their playing a game called "Massive Blood" during recess that included the line, "Hey guys, you do know I just set your whole village on fire." I'm eager to see how Steinke will transform what is an episodic group of anecdotes into the sort of narrative that Scholastic will likely expect, but I imagine having the tentpoles of certain dates in an academic calendar will help in that regard.

D.O.A.: The Death of Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer, by Ted Intorcio. This biographical comic about the late star of the Little Rascals serial is done in classic Pekar/Crumb style. That means lots of talking heads, a sense of naturalism that borders on the grotesque, a commitment to research and a fascination with the forgotten. Intorcio grabs on to the main hook of Switzer's biographical details, which is that in real life he had a cruel streak enabled by studio entitlement that contrasted with the lovable scamp personality he portrayed onscreen. In particular, Intorcio zeroes in on the sordid details of his death and the conflicting stories that surrounded it. What's clear on the night that he was fatally shot, he went over to an acquaintance's house in order to collect on a debt. What happened after that is a matter of perspective, and Intorcio is careful to simply lay out the various scenarios without necessarily taking a side. That said, he noted that the testimony of one person who might have cleared Switzer's name was never called to trial. Switzer's life took a turn for the negative after his career as a child actor ended, and to a degree, there's a suggestion that bad karma caught up with him. In the end, he got got a fate that he didn't deserve but that he certainly helped to create. The smudgy quality of Intorcio's art captures the sleaziness of the world that the adult Switzer occupied, which was an easy but effective juxtaposition against his constant but cute mugging as a child. The overall tone reminds me a bit of the sort of thing that Rick Geary likes to do, only with a more noir feel.


Filth, by Christoph Mueller. This young German artist is not well known outside of the circle who reads underground zine Mineshaft, but those in the know recognize that his skill as a cartoonist is remarkable. This zine, put together for Durham's Zine Machine show a couple of years ago, is a collection of stories, drawings and other ephemera. Mueller cops to his twin influences of Robert Crumb and Chris Ware, but unlike most he has the chops to match either of those artists. From Crumb he takes that id-centered approach of spilling one's guts on the page, no matter how embarrassing or lurid the confession. He also has Crumb's skill with regard to dense crosshatching and bringing figures to life, like his drawings of Bertrand Russell and Walt Whitman. From Ware he's taken that same design design sense, that same clarity of line and page, and a remarkably clear but small ability to letter. There aren't many cartoonists who can do what he does (Nina Bunjevac, another Mineshaft contributor, comes to mind). Mueller brings a sense of both glee and guilt to the page with regard to the images he chooses to draw, and the first story in the comic, "The Cornfield", comes to an abrupt halt when we see an underground comics fan reading it and masturbating to it some time in the future, noting that this obscure comic will be so valuable from a master like Mueller. The story itself is more Josh Simmons than Crumb, as a woman escapes soldiers coming to her house and masturbates using the corn out in the field in meticulously & lewdly drawn detail. It works on any number of levels: as porn, as absurdity and as self-flagellation disguised as self-aggrandizement. Indeed, Mueller loves making light of his obscurity as a cartoonist. "The Voice Of Compulsion", about art school woes, speaks to this while shredding himself for a lack of empathy and self-absorption. "How Hans Became A Man" is about a sensitive boy driven to do horrible things by his parents in order for him to become an adult, and it's all about the arbitrary and frightening power that one's parents can wield. This story shows off his page design, as the way he chops up multiple panels in a short space alters the narrative. If Ware's narratives tend to focus on the horror of the mundane, then Mueller's tend to be about finding the mundane in the horrible and expanding on it. All of this is warm-up stuff for an artist who has the potential to do some interesting things as he cycles through his influences.

In The Crapper, by Chris Carlier. This odd little comic plays on the humor of discomfort and escalates the misfortunes of an unfortunate men's room attendant. Published by the odd Japanese publisher BigUglyRobot, Carlier uses a rubbery, exaggerated approach (very much in the Peter Bagge school) to tell the story of a man named Thomas who has to deal with a ridiculously demanding boss (he's not allowed to use the bathroom he's servicing, nor is he ever allowed to take breaks), obnoxious cokeheads, vomiting creeps, guys who have a complex about urinating with someone else there, and the incident that sends Thomas over the edge: a man who shits all over the toilet and then steals from his tip jar. The one problem I had with this comic is that it's a classic case of  punching-down, schlemazel humor. The protagonist is an honest, hard worker who happens to be black who's beset by white, privileged assholes. His eventual fate is exacerbated by the humiliations he's faced with, and even his attempt at breaking out and quitting is punished. While Carlier skillfully escalates Thomas' humiliations (mitigated only by his fantasy of being a centaur) and clearly doesn't find his torturers to be admirable in any way, the end still feels mean-spirited and nihilistic in a way that doesn't justify the mildly amusing final gag.

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