Friday, October 28, 2016

mini-kus! Of The Week #1: Ruedi Schorno, Martins Zutis, Till Hafenbrak

David Schilter and company over at Latvia's Kus have been producing beautiful, provocative anthologies for quite some time. In 2010, Kus started their mini-Kus! line, featuring a single artist in a classic 16-page mini, in full color. The series is up to the forties now, so I'm going to review them, three at a time, every Friday. This article covers mini-Kus! #1-3.

Bearslayer Returns, by Ruedi Schorno. Schorno is a Swiss cartoonist but he's described as a "watcher of Latvian identity". This comic is all about updating Latvian folklore and doing a modern reinterpretation. Schorno does a new version of an epic poem by the Latvian poet Andrejs Pumpurs, who took the Latvian folk legend of the heroic Bearslayer, who used his gods-bestowed powers to fight for his fellow Latvians. He's a sort of Gilgamesh/Heracles figure, only he's eventually betrayed by his people. Schorno reimagines him in modern Latvia as a kindhearted security guard whose heroism is essentially reduced to quotidian gestures. His aggression is confined to internet commentary, hefting an axe to chop firewood and using a sword to skewer kabobs. His fate is the same as the Bearslayer of the poem: ending up drowning, next to his enemy. Schorno's commentary is tongue in cheek in the silliness of the everyday schmo living an average life being posited as the hero, but it's also quite serious in the way the Bearslayer opposes homophobia and global warming. Schorno's painted pages framed by huge letters give the book that epic scope that is then deliberately undermined by the mundane and every superficial nature of the drawings, like Bearslayer reading a supermarket tabloid. I thought it fitting for mini-Kus to kick off the series with something so specifically Latvian, especially since the text addresses the very idea of what it means to be a free Latvia, given their centuries-long history of being conquered by others. 

Being, by Martins Zutis. This comic by Latvian artist Zutis mixes dense cross-hatching of anthropomorphic chimneys with a bright, cartoony painted approach in a story about myths and heroes in the modern world. A benevolent chimney sweep covered head-to-toe in ashes has a line of cute anthropomorphic chimneys, giving out gifts like he was Santa Claus. In a series of cute, cartoony drawings, Zutis lays out a deadly serious argument regarding the relationship between belief and myth--especially including belief in the invisible hand of the free market and the influence of media and politics. The chimney sweep suggests that, aided and abetted by cultural and other outside forces, we create our own heroic realities and selves. The selves are both real and not real, just as we as sentient beings are real but also just whirring masses of atoms. The gift that each chimney receives is a cleaning stick, and it literally clears their heads. What I like most about this comic is that the chimney sweep goes on and on in essentially deconstructing all of existence, all of being, but his audience and those he's there to help (the chimneys) are almost entirely oblivious to what he has to say. One gets the sense that it's precisely because of that fact that he's willing to share those secrets.

Weeding, by Till Hafenbrak. Employing a bright green & red color palette, it's no wonder that the Berlin-based Hafenbrak has done illustration work with NoBrow. This silent comic that relies entirely on color and doesn't have a traditional use of line is as clear an example of the NoBrow aesthetic as I've ever seen. The story involves a gardener getting a job on a mysterious estate and finding that things are what they seem. Freeing a bird from a basement after it crashed in a window, the story turns on a dime and becomes an over-the-top horror story involving magic, monstrous plants, scientific experiments, headless bodies, heads in jars, etc. The revelation of the main monster is as chilling an image as I've ever seen in a comic, worthy of an HP Lovecraft monstrosity. Despite the fact that the comic is wordless, Hafenbreak is quite deft in quickly getting across information to the reader a beat ahead of the protagonist, so that it's clear as to why he's doing what he's doing. This is a perfect story for this format, as it doesn't stretch out a fairly basic story with unnecessary extra material. It stays true to its bare bones in an effort to draw out a specific series of reactions and then doesn't linger overlong on the shocks it creates. 

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