Friday, April 26, 2024

CRAM, Part 3: CRAM #2

Editing and publishing one anthology is hard. Doing multiple issues is a thankless task that requires equal parts vision and determination. It's clear that Andrew Alexander has both, because CRAM #2 once again is on the cutting edge of up-and-coming cartoonists. Alexander takes a step back and only provides the cover, with a mix of colors that highlights how vivid and beautiful the Risograph process can look if you are careful with color separations. Way too often, Riso comics are sloppy and off-grade, and it can be distracting. Alexander is careful to make the anthology as intentional as possible in terms of its production values. 

Alexander wisely starts this issue off with "Herpes Outbreak," by Allee Errico. Errico would later publish her first collection with CRAM, but I'll get to that later. She and fellow CRAM artist Angela Fanche are two of the most compelling autobiographical cartoonists working today, and it's not because of any particular formal innovations. Indeed, both often use the tried-and-true diary comics format that's tedious in the hands of many other cartoonists. What sets Errico apart is a clear affinity for a highly personal, sloppy, and even smeared line and use of color. This is the lens she uses to express her clear, direct, questioning, and impassioned point of view. Like fellow young memoirist Juliette Collet, Errico seems to owe a lot more to late 80s and early 90s alternative & underground artists like Julie Doucet, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, and perhaps Dori Seda than most comics that have come out in the past 20 years. One of her teachers was Lauren Weinstein, and you can see that same painterly mix of grotesque character designs, expressive cartoooning, and highly intuitive storytelling. Weinstein didn't care much about doing things "right," even as she brought new skills to bear in her first major work "Girl Stories," but she somehow made it feel right. Errico is quite similar.

This story is about waking up with an oral herpes outbreak and a recollection of how she contracted it in the first place back in high school. Errico looks like she used charcoal and pastels here, and her line varies from detailed and naturalistic to cartoony, depending on what was needed. Her visual approach is so compelling that she's able to cram in twelve panels on a page with a ton of dialogue without it feeling cramped. Indeed, the mix of her solid lettering, understanding of the relationship between bodies in space, and overall pacing give the pages an almost propulsive feel. Errico approaches the issue of herpes with her typical and unaffected candor, casting aside shame as she understands just how common herpes is. Indeed, this isn't so much a PSA or rant on herpes as it is mourning a particularly complicated relationship. Then Errico turns that around with a couple of funny side observations about her boyfriend accidentally giving her a backpack with a gun and then segueing into the modern day where she talks about this with other cartoonists. She does a funny drawing of monstrous little herpes sores about to burst through the skin of her lips and then compares them to memories, saying "the past is right here in the beautiful present." It's just an exquisite ending that ties up a lot of different emotional threads and adds a sense of resonance to a story about gossip, shame, teenage drama, and human connection. 

CRAM then pivots to Cedar Van Tassel's "Pleistocene Dreams," a story that is unlike Errico's in nearly every conceivable way. Van Tassel's images and use of color are designed to flatten everything, including affect. Van Tassel makes extensive use of negative space in this autobiographical story about him picking up a friend at an airport and nattering on about the effects of the ice age on Minnesota. Using light pastels (the one piece of continuity with Errico), Van Tassel and his friend have an interesting exchange about why the Pleistocene Era was so interesting and why some people turn this into a deeper thought in their place in civilization today. The story ends with a hilarious, disgusting swerve involving overfed vultures that turns what had been a talking heads story into a gag sequence with thematic resonance. 

Caroline Cash continues the previous story's visual aesthetic with her clear and cartoony style that meshes cartoony exaggeration with solid naturalistic elements to create a polished, breezy diary comic. Indeed, it's an example of Hourly Comics Day, which tends to generate highly forgettable and indulgent anecdotes. Cash plays around with the form, taking advantage of the generous page space to create expansive and exaggerated compositions that usually tend to look much smaller in typical presentations of these sorts of diary strips. As usual in a Cash story, there are equal parts sincere and smart-ass, with nuggets addressing deeper feelings mixed with silly anecdotes. This story feels especially breezy, reveling in moments of mundane amusement. 

Next up is A.T. Pratt, taking the anthology in a dramatically different direction. In an extended parody of te famous "Toronto Three" cartoonist friend group of Joe Matt, Seth, and Chester Brown, Pratt obliterates the clean graphic design style of those three with chaotic, nightmarish, and grossly visceral visuals that pack as many as twenty panels on a page. This story is about as inside baseball as it gets with regard to how much of the humor is based on a reader's familiarity with those cartoonists, but it's clear that Pratt couldn't care less. It's really a story that's about (literally) destroying idols and this kind of chummy best-friends-artists storytelling that is sometimes seen in the work of Matt in particular. The Toronto Three all die grisly, horrible, and funny deaths (I imagine this was done before Matt's actual death) in the story, which doesn't seem to bother Pratt's stand-in all that much. 

The chaotic, cluttered approach continues in the next two stories, starting with Nick Bunch of Reptile House. It's a highly clever way of dealing with two variations on the same gag surrounded by visual clutter that is smartly contextualized by the nature of the joke. As two young women walk to their job at a diner in the city, one of them endlessly natters on about whether or not the whales were saved and then if the rainforest was saved. Her friend has no time for her nonsense as these two brightly-colored figures are surrounded by dense (jungle-like) clutter that's colored a bit more dimly. Bunch's character design is deliberately flat and cartoonish, matching the stylized action on the page. Everything is exaggerated, dense, and over the top in service to a familiar gag of an authority figure being frustrated by the cluelessness of young people. 

Floyd Tangeman (editor of dense underground anthology Tinfoil Comix) brings this dense, cartoony progression to its logical end, as his "Projection Dance" interpolates the 23rd Psalm into a four-panel grid featuring a grotesque, constantly changing and mutating figure that never reaches a goal despite being shown walking left to right in every single panel. The gritty use of pastels induces cognitive dissonance in every panel while never disrupting the overall flow of the story. 

Pete Faecke reverses this trend in the final story while committing to the totally nonsensical quality of the back half of this issue of CRAM with a story about Mr. Bimbo. This was an invisible, unseen character who supposedly lived on Fozzie the Bear's index finger in the film Muppet Treasure Island. The character of Mr. Bimbo is strong, talented, and capable were Fozzie is a goofball. In this story, set in the old west (???) Mr. Bimbo has a feud with another "eligible bachelor" named Tim Timbers. The story concludes with Mr. Bimbo playing Ramones and Lou Reed songs for a group of admiring women. What I like best about this bit of total nonsense is Faecke's absolute commitment to the aesthetics and details of the bit, no matter how silly it is. Indeed, it's that commitment that makes it funny, similar to the sort of thing that Rick Altergott does.

The subtitle of this issue is "casual conversations for brain-fog drunks," and the back half of the issue feels increasingly like the stories becoming increasingly (but deliberately) intoxicated and incoherent, while still never leaving the realm of readability. Nothing here matches Errico's opening story in terms of overall impact and artistry, but it all makes sense together. 

Friday, April 12, 2024

CRAM, Part 2: CRAM #1

The underground/alternative comics anthology is a tradition dating back close to sixty years that has birthed movements and introduced exciting new talent to a larger audience. Beginning with Zap!, Bijou Funnies, Wimmen's Comix, and Arcade, future decades saw Heavy Metal, Buzzard, Gay Comix, RAW, Weirdo, Zero Zero, Drawn & Quarterly, Action Girl Comics, Kramer's Ergot, MOME, and NOW (among others) as significant and fairly long-running anthologies that highlighted all of the significant talent of their eras.

The younger underground cartoonists emerging now are an interesting bunch. They seem much more influenced (as a whole) in work from the late 80s and early 90s than any of the trends from the last 20 or 30 years. Fascinating new anthologies have emerged like Reptile House, Jaywalk, Datura Magazine, Vacuum Decay, Clusterfux, Tinfoil, Poison Pill, Death Spark and others, but the most interesting at the moment is CRAM, edited by Andrew Alexander. CRAM seems to be both a culmination and a distillation of the entire Risograph comics movement that started about a decade ago. It featured an intense DIY work ethic, often focusing on the comic more as an art object than in its actual content. Formal innovation has often been a hallmark of cutting-edge anthologies (Kramer's and RAW are good examples), and the best of them have always found a way to bring it back 'round to narrative. CRAM is very much in this vein. 

The cover is a real statement of intent. It's by RAW and Blab veteran David Sandlin, and it's got a lighthearted Riso spirit in its use of color amidst the undersea monsters and decay. Reaching back to the past, with a prominent New York artist, no less, also lets the reader know that this is a statement by a set of (mostly) New York cartoonists. There's a single-page piece by Stipan Tadić, a Croatian painter and cartoonist that's set in a most familiar setting: an Uber ride in New York. Replacing the more familiar New York taxi ride, this strip crams 24 panels into a single page and loads them up with text. It's a deliberately intimate and slightly suffocating visual experience that works because Tadić provides just enough breathing room while spinning a funny conversation between a Croatian and a native of India. It's a great story because it captures something specific about the immigrant experience in New York, as the driver launches on a rant about American women even as he reveals that he studies pick-up artist material. There's no judgment--it's just another experience. It's also an introduction to the wildly disparate visual aesthetics that Alexander is about to throw at the reader. 

Alexander's own piece is an excerpt from a longer story. I normally hate this kind of thing in anthologies, but Alexander provides enough context in this story about him and a friend attending a state fair in New York to allow it to stand on its own. Alexander's use of color is varied but still restrained, which isn't always true of many Riso comics that are trying to draw in eyeballs. Alexander's figurework is the most interesting aspect of his comics, as he loves using distorted scales and perspectives as his characters navigate their environment. There's one great panel where a goat rushes by him and his eyeballs are on one side of his face like a Cubist image. Alexander's stand-in character has this twitchy, anxious energy that's almost awkward to read, but he reins it in before it derails the story. The highlight is when the couple attends a demolition derby event, with two pages of glorious open-page layouts and a filthy kaleidoscope's array of colors. It's much like Alexander's other memoir stuff: sweaty, nervous, but ultimately open to intense experiences. 

Kade McClement's "The Freelancer" feels like some bizarre 80s story that Jason Levian might unearth for a Floating World comic. The weird and frequently off-kilter lettering and strange character design that looks inspired by weird Golden Age comics with their grotesque and rushed-looking qualities. The crazy story about a freelancer art courier who gets mixed up with murder, a bandaged crime boss's wife and other foolishness feels like a more modern touch, but it's got all the noir qualities of a Jack Cole crime comic. Putting this in a beautiful Riso comic feels almost like a deliberate act of comic provocation. 

Max Huffman and Alexander have worked together for some time, including on other anthologies. Huffman also has an excerpt here, and it also works well on its own. Like a lot of younger cartoonists, Huffman rejects easy categorization in terms of his style, especially with regard to his contemporaries. If anything, his use of flat shapes and simple colors is reminiscient of Gene Deitch and the UPA school of animation. This excerpt is part of what seems to be a sci-fi caper or espionage story involving a man trying to sneak through security. To throw authorities off his trail, he infects the man ahead of him with a "clout virus" that gains him entrance--but the man in front of him is reduced to liquid. Huffman has done a lot of short-form work, so seeing a part of a longer narrative will be interesting, especially with the denseness of his narrative style. 

Clair Gunther's "Cecilia & Rebecca" is a visual and narrative palate-cleanser after several intensely colored stories. Simply rendered with a sort of metallic gold-brown background, it's about a piano teacher whose lessons with a kid named Bridget is interrupted by her titular little sisters. Hoping to add them as a clients, she mentions it to their mother, who nervously says she'll ask them. When the mother later tells the teacher they'd rather do dance, it leads to a wholly unexpected and strange twist that is nonetheless deeply felt. Gunther smartly takes what seems to be a fairly straight-ahead narrative in a 12-panel grid and turns it into something beautifully odd. 

The first issue ends with Alexander Laird's totally bonkers "Goblin 64." Laird has his own publishing shingle with Frog Farm (and he does regular events with other cartoonists), but this story is a demented cross between aspects of Paper Rad's cultural raids and shitty video game magazines from the 80s. It took me a minute to see what Laird was doing here, in this article by "Caleb Humus" about a game called Maze Goblin, done precisely in the style of those magazines, down to the grainy images of the games that are supposed to be mind-blowing but look badly antiquated by today's standards. The drawings Laird makes of this imaginary game featuring a character named Ebubobo the Goblin are very funny and fit so totally into the aesthetic that I was hooked for a moment. The gameplay slowly gets stranger and stranger as it's clear this demo the author is playing has sinister overtones until the piece pivots into a review of a game called "Caleb," reviewed by Ebubobo the Goblin! It's a fantastic concept piece that works because of the attention to detail paid to its source material and the wild swerve that nonetheless makes sense. 

It's a wild way to conclude the issue, but it demonstrates rather definitively that anything goes with CRAM and what Alexander is willing to do with regard to publishing different narrative styles. Wisely, Alexander steers away from excerpts in future issues, but there's just a wonderful sense of freshness in this anthology. Alexander isn't necessarily trying to reinvent the wheel or challenge the very concept of narrative the way that Sammy Harkham did in Kramer's. Instead, Alexander is more concerned with the very best production values supporting the aims of some disparate narrative styles.