Monday, May 13, 2024

CRAM, Part 4: CRAM #3

CRAM #3 has one of the funniest covers I've ever seen for an anthology. In an image that encompasses both front and back covers, artist Laura Lannes (her work is missed!) has a fairly familiar image on the right-hand (front) side: a young woman, lying down, reading a comic. It's something out of NON from some years ago. However, a closer look reveals that the image is...odd. Her legs are up in the air and there's a random hand on her left thigh. Opening the whole thing up reveals that someone is going down on her while the cover woman's attention is on the comic. It's a solid gag. 

There's the usual array of vastly different styles on display here, Alexander doesn't have any art in this issue, which isn't surprising, considering how hard putting together an anthology is. Angela Fanche opens up the issue on the inside front cover with a short comic; it's a good space for this kind of tightly-compacted storytelling. Her style continues to evolve, going from more basic diary comics to this slightly fantastical anecdote about a memory that acts as a song stuck in her head. She plays on this metaphor until it transforms into music and nearly suffocates her partner. Fanche's drawing is so delightfully scratchy and spare in some panels, and then she swoops in with big swathes of black patterns in others. It's a fascinating strip to attempt to decode. 

Steve Grove's "Potboilers" is done in the sort of unfussy, slightly cartoony naturalism that I see in a lot of comics these days. It's the kind of story where the characters have one narrative, but there's another narrative at play with the visuals and backgrounds, in particular. The premise of the story is that there's an agency that will send someone over to boil water for you so when you arrive back home, you have a boiling pot of water ready to go for cooking. While this is an absurd and funny idea, the premise is far less interesting than the interplay between the employees. The strident Peggy, trying to make a sale over the phone, has to deal with the distraction of boil specialist Bumphus' failure out in the field. She loses the sale, he goes off the deep end, and she does a "reset" by looking at violent imagery on the internet and then fantasizing about him being killed in a variety of ways. All around them, the house they're working out of is mysteriously dilapidated, and the final scene sees Bumphus on the sidewalk, slumped over after he's clearly slit his wrists with a broken bottle. Everything about this story is off-kilter and anxious in a way that requires multiple readings to absorb its nuances. 

Audra Stang's short comic features a couple of her "Star Valley" characters cozily watching a fantasy show of some kind. In pages with a 20-panel grid, Stang offers pieces of the show with no dialogue, creating a sort of bubble of fascination for the duo that's broken when a commercial comes on and they make a crude joke about it. Stang has an uncanny sense of recreating that sense of mundane magic felt at that age when two friends can share a common obsession together; it's a sort of ritual that still lets them be teens. 

Jack Lloyd's cartoony "Pickles" fantasy story reminds me a lot of Vaughn Bode's stuff, down to the color scheme and eccentric character design. It also has a touch of futuristic urban stories that touch on graffitti as a cornerstone aesthetic. It's one of many stories in the anthology where that aesthetic is more important than the actual narrative. Michelle Kwon's "Autobio" is another such story and self-consciously so. She starts off by declaring that she's tired of drawing herself and so chooses to draw herself as a sort of cute anthropomorphic animal. This is after she turns down other potential character designs, as though she's building a character in a video game. The comic itself is all about treasuring memories on her travels despite her anxiety about the future, and the cute characters turn what is otherwise a routine diary comic into something that's fun to look at visually. 

Steven Christie's "Punchline Sinker" might be my favorite story in this issue. It's a sci-fi story abot a young woman named Zander who recalls her first job, which was a fulfillment center in a satellite orbiting Earth. She worked the job with her friend Peanut, and at first the story seems like a pleasant bit of slice-of-life fiction. She announces to Peanut that she's going to quit in order to get married at precisely the same time Peanut's girlfriend breaks up with her. This leads Peanut to snap as she comes up with a theory: whenever something goes well for one of them, something bad happens to the other. This leads to a surprising and clever turn of events, which turns the story from slice-of-life to a tense action story. Christie uses a classic 9-panel grid to create a particular tempo, and then stays with it as the tension ramps up, but the reader (and protagonist) are unclear on where this is all going. Christie's thin line and limited pallette all help play into this aesthetic repetition. 

After the first half of the issue was mostly conventional narrative, Alexander returned to the weird stuff in the second half. Nicole Rodrigues' "We Hold On To Things" is a colorful bit of comics poetry, using an open page layout and a narrative mostly told in captions that illustrate the feelings of the narrator. She's depicted as a monarch in her own mind, even as she has to fend off her own destructive feelings. The textual meter sets the pacing in this comic, as opposed to a truly integrative approach between word and image. Grayson Bear's "Relatable Richard" is a lampoon of diary comics, featuring a lisping protagonist who sets off on a date, only to slip on a banana peel, fall down a mountain, and get sliced to pieces. The Riso colors are all jacked up to neon levels in four pages of pain hilariously piled on its protagonist. 

After non-traditional-narratives, Sam Sharpe offers "Annie and Alex at the Heartland Cafe." It's one of those narratives that appears to be one thing at first, then quickly becomes something else. A waiter is having a normal day at his job until a man and woman dine at a table outside. It quickly becomes apparent that he's autistic and she's his aide, taking him out for a meal. However, he's disregulated, which manifests as shouting, then throwing his food on the ground, and then eventually punching his aide in the face. All of this is being seen from the waiter's point of view, who is at a loss at what to do, until the aide tells him pointedly: "Don't get involved and do not touch him!" She calms him down, they pay, and then leave. What makes the story interesting is that the waiter can't let this go, and when he sees the woman at the train station, he expresses his remorse for not doing anything. She reminds him that it had nothing to do with him--all of his machismo, all of his need to be a main character (so to speak), was irrelevant. Sharpe's cartooning is top notch as always, blending a slightly cartooning quality into what is otherwise naturalistic work. 

The anthology ends with a trio of stories that are more about sensory impressions than story. "Rangers," by Ethan Means & Ashton Carless, is a gritty black & white war story that may be in some kind of post-apocalyptic setting. A group of soldiers (or prisoners?) sets out to tag things with bright yellow happy faces, until they try and head back. Brendan Leach (a welcome presence!) offers up "Storm and Stress," about a violenist who sees one of her colleagues menaced by a guy on a subway car, but she winds up looking away despite her colleague's pleading eyes. The bright splashes of color contrasted with the black & white images of her anxiety lead to a loose, free-floating sense of guilt and despair. Finally, Aidan Fitzgerald's "Contestants" uses deliberately crude, 8-bit digitally-created color images of contestants in some bizarre game show. The game is about slowly rising while recounting a memory, with that memory being judged by a panel. Fitzgerald is riffing on the public distillation of memory and identity (on social media, presumably) but doing it in a way that doesn't repeat the obvious downsides to social media participation. 

Alexander seems determined to never do the same issue twice, and the result is an anthology that's greater than the sum of its parts. The pieces by Bear, Rodrigues, Means/Carless are somewhat slight on their own, but they make a great deal of sense within the context of the issue. Alexander is adept at pairing more conventional (if odd!) narratives with more experimental pieces, resulting in an anthology that's challenging at points but also entirely readable. 

No comments:

Post a Comment