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. 

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