Home > CR Reviews
Minimalism Archives #14 -- 25 to Buy
posted December 24, 2004
Twenty-Five Mini-Comics You Can (and Should) Buy Right Now
Minimalism by Tom Spurgeon
This article marks my last go-round as the primary contributor to the "Minimalism" column. Starting with its next appearance, XXX XXXX will take over the primary writing reins, becoming the third columnist after founder Robert Boyd and myself. The mini-comics field was never my first choice of assignment, but I think their coverage is a vital part of this magazine's mission. For a time my volunteering to do the articles helped incrementally in guaranteeing the column a place in these always-crowded pages. As I leave, I hope we are past the day when the importance of covering mini-comics will ever be questioned. Not only do many of the best new cartoonists make themselves known through the format, and not only do many readers experiment with minis as a hands-on investigation into the medium itself, but more and more established artists continue to work with mini-comics as a supplement to traditional venues, and a few artists have even embraced the mini as their primary means of comics expression. Cartoonists like John Porcellino and Matt Feazell have in pursuit of their individual artistic muses fashioned a recurring spotlight for the mini-comic's unique qualities, an ongoing and unhurried legitimizing of the format.
I want to direct my last column at those of you still on the fence about the format, those who remain distrustful of the resounding lousiness of the vast majority of handmade and off-format books. I sympathize. Despite the cliché that asserts there's the same proportion of crud in every artistic sub-stratum, there is almost certainly more outright bad work to be found in minis than anywhere else in comics. Although this makes perfect sense given the low threshold required to publish in this format, it also means that finding mini-comics to read and own can be extremely frustrating unless one is so immersed in and exposed to them that the sorting process becomes automatic. Yet because one artist's low threshold is another's safe harbor, and as a central conceit of this column in recent years is that the very best work done in minis can stand with the comics from any of the other neighborhoods making up Comics, USA, finding a pile of mini-comics a serious comics reader would find worth the trouble of assembling should be one of this column's main priorities.
The good news is that finding the best mini-comics is easier than ever. There are two good mini-comics distributor/catalog sites (highwaterbooks.com; usscatastrophe.com), a new minis print catalog (Global Hobo) and at least one business representing minis to stores in the comics market in addition to his other clients (Tony Shenton). Mini-comics of high quality can be found at every single significant comics show without a Wizard in its name, and at most of those, too. The Alternative Press Expo (San Francisco) and Small Press Expo (Bethesda) begin and end the convention year with shows that are awash in mini-comics. In addition to an increase in number of sales avenues, many of the more laudable works remain in print for a much longer time than what seemed the case even ten years ago. A nascent sales framework, the Internet and a growing cluster of small comics shows has allowed artists to reach much wider, even international, audiences more easily than their forefathers in the days of the mimeograph machine and self-addressed stamped envelopes. The upshot of all this is that no one has an excuse to completely ignore mini-comics anymore. If you read the right ones, you won't want to. The following are roughly twenty-five available and in-print mini-comics -- a suite of works I believe would gracefully supplement any personal -- or even professional -- comic book library. Please buy them, understand them as comics, and, if you become intrigued, explore them as art of unique qualities. But most of all, read them, read them, read them.
All Tract Assortment
Jack Chick Comics
These are the most frequently consumed mini-comics in the world and some of the most effective when it comes to using basic symbols and clear language to communicate and persuade. As noted in every hipster publication imaginable, the Chick pamphlets are also items of irresistible pop culture, such pure expressions of an American way of thinking and treating art that they can support a seemingly endless run of parodies without wilting. None of the various satirical takes on the booklets comes close to the experience of immersing yourself in the real thing. Although some may object to paying money that supports the worldview espoused by these comics, for everyone else this is the way to collect a sizable amount of fascinating work in one shot.
Megan Kelso may be the most interesting talent of the half-generation of comics artists that emerged from 1992-1997. Seemingly the least comics-immersed of her Seattle peers, Kelso has since developed into an intuitive cartoonist with a talent for building poignant scenes through off-key moments. The first three of a planned four or five book series sold together in one immense package, the Artichoke books explore the effects of war and cultural rigidity as destabilizing social forces that wreak havoc on the lives and loves of individuals. The books are keenly, prettily designed and the assured tempo of Kelso's storytelling greatly rewards multiple readings.
Cecilia Crocodile's Really Really Good Day
Greg Cook has claimed for himself a peculiar artistic corner of the comics medium, one that careens between obtusely presented historical short stories and fanciful fables manipulated to a specific, usually adult, purpose. Cecilia Crocodile may not be Cook's strongest work, but it is one of his two or three most emblematic. It's also a story that seems to work much better in the mini-comics form than it might on the pages of some anthology or in a solo showcase, showcasing the mini's admirable ability to house otherwise difficult to publish pieces.
Cirkus New Orleans
Top Shelf's line of smaller-formatted mini-style books featured a number of interesting works, including a compendium of Dylan Horrocks' political cartoon work and a couple of side projects culled from Craig Thompson's early minis and sideline creative efforts, books that should interest anyone who deeply enjoyed Blankets. Cirkus New Orleans marked Josh Simmons debut in comics for most people. He has since moved on to do a few issues of the massively uneven (at best) Top Shelf comic book Happy, finish a run on his mini-comic anthology All About Fuckin' and contribute to a few anthologies, most notably Kramer's Ergot 4. His best work remains this mini-comic: a hangover-clear, sordid journey through the back roads of American entertainment with a Robert Altman-sized cast of misfits and freaks, many of whom manage to be alternately endearing and grotesque. Simmons alchemically mixes gag narrative rhythms, sequential storytelling, and one-page tableau type drawings into a unique presentational style. It is one of the best uses of the mini-comics format by any established publisher.
Former Comics Journal News Editor Greg Stump makes very funny comics out of a limited artistic palette and fearless dedication to follow-through. His best routines in this collection of his strip from the Seattle free weekly The Stranger and its cousin the Portland Mercury depend on sticking with a joke until its more subtle absurdities reveal themselves, and in some cases, until the stewing process cooks up a weird smell all its own. In many ways, Stump's cartoons are like the work of a comedic monologist who was forced to take up pen and paper because he couldn't stop cracking up on stage -- the cartooning seems to come more slowly than the very assured writing and conceptual work. In the first half of the last century, Stump might have had a career as a "humorist," with a drawing board nearby he used very seldom or not at all.
E-Z Order Option
Matt Feazell's work should be in everyone's comic book library because a lot of it is funny, because some of it is wise, because he works in an arch, simplified style consisting of stick figures and flat background drawings, and because he's one of the last worthy reminders of an earlier era in small press publishing. Many mistakenly believe the accessibility of Feazell's books somehow makes them more pure or primal as comics. This underestimates his skill as a craftsman. Many of Feazell's comics are complex in every single way save rendering and decoration, and are effective as exercises in those undervalued craft skills necessary to carry a reader's interest through a narrative.
Shiga's comics negotiate the line between self-published books and what we tend to think of as mini-comics, and in doing so puts big exclamation marks on how useless that distinction has become as a hard definition. Compared to the heavy, simple line with which he builds the visual portion of this comic, Shiga's writing reads as almost relentlessly bouncy and clever. In Fleep, Shiga pieces together a compelling narrative out of one resourceful character's ingenuity and a few ordinary props. Because Shiga makes the stakes life and death, the dramatic tension and quality of problem solving involved keeps the various mental exercises from descending into preciousness. One imagines any number of fellow cartoonists falling in love with Shiga's work and doing very bad riffs on single aspects of what is, in his hands, a satisfying whole.
Those seeking a dose of mini-comics from members of the now-defunct arts collective Fort Thunder might have more frequent luck reaching out towards many of their fellow travelers and acolytes. The free weekly Paper Rodeo is a great place to get a faceful of oddball comics in one sitting, and Leif Goldberg's new and extremely laudable issue of National Waste (#5) will reward most anyone's interest, but for a single mini I prefer Ben Jones' Horace. Ben Jones is one of the young artists who has taken the idiosyncrasy torch from the Fort Thunder group of visual stylists and is using it to set fire to the world around him in an impressive march of mini-comics, anthologies, on-line efforts and related art. Reading Jones' comics means full immersion in a language you may not be able to speak, but that somehow manages to communicate a whole world of humor and bare-boned spirituality. Like many of the best mini-comics cartoonists that can be traced back or crossways to the Fort Thunder ethos, Jones challenges everything you ever thought made good comics.
I Can't Tell You Anything
Any of Souther Salazar's comics will do, and any you can find may have to do because of the artist's very limited print runs and the passion with which his fellow cartoonists and growing number of fans snatch them up. Salazar refers to his comics in the context of his overall artistic output as his "works in narrative," although many of the best minis he's done have little to do with any sort of story. Salazar's minis generally have an obsessive quality, variations on a sentiment or a single thought or event attacked from different angles, cartoon imagery in repetition that guarantees a certain "sense of the room" between pages. If you can't buy I Can't Tell You Anything, visit Salazar's table first at the next west coast comics show and buy whatever he's offering, or send him money through his web site and cross your fingers that something he has made will show up in your mailbox in return. His work is that worthy of your interest.
St. Louis-based artist Dan Zettwoch announced his arrival with this joyously crafted and designed book, the story of the meeting between the ahead-of-their-time armored ships Monitor and Merrimac during the American Civil War. Although there exists a nice formal trick where the pages fold out as gatefolds in order to the play through a particularly complicated scene, where Zettwoch's greatest improvement lies between this and earlier works is in the way he carries the story along. With graphic aplomb, the cartoonist moves the reader in and out of the action in a way that seems unhurried yet tense, a proper reflection of the battle's haphazard pacing. Zettwoch also manages to fashion a work that is deadly serious while full of cornpone humor and outright slapstick. A huge leap forward for an artist a few had dismissed as a non-starter, Ironclad was the biggest surprise in mini-comics during my run on this column.
Sean Bieri's work exudes a kind of understated class, the kind you frequently see in a veteran performer working on stage in a familiar yet formidable role. In his sure hands, everything fussy and distracting fades in favor of primary concerns like story and humor. The difficult to find mini-collection Jumbo Jape provides the most comprehensive look into Bieri's blunt and satisfying brand of mainstream satire. Individual issues are worth poking around as well.
Porcellino may be the most important artist to emerge after the first great wave of alternative comics artists. He has certainly been the most interesting cartoonist to make mini-comics his primary mode of expression. There are several quality runs of material in the last few dozen issues, including those issues collected in the book Perfect Example. However, I believe best way to delve into Porcellino for the very first time is in the most current offering, which as I write this is issue #63. By meeting King-Cat in its most current incarnation, you get a clearer sense of someone who treats comics as a constant companion for recording and exploring life according to values of harmony with, and honest exploration of, one's surroundings. His fans sometimes fail to mention that Porcellino has a wry and friendly sense of humor, which gets a nice workout in this issue.
Love Looks Left
The best thing about reading Tom Hart's mini-comics these days is that you get to watch him build a voice for himself step by step. These were tell-your-friend exciting works at the time of their initial release, so completely divorced from the expectations of an alternative comics audience only a few years removed from immersion in genre work and still struggling with the idea of adult expression as put forward by the RAW generation. Books like Love Looks Left and The Angry Criminal were during their initial publication most often compared to poetry, but really they were more like reading unadorned prose -- direct, to the point, processing bigger issues through smaller scenes of relatable life. You should get this one first, but you may end up wanting them all. It is a great thing for these comics to be available again.
Modern Cartoonist (Eightball #18)
Dan Clowes' mini within the pages of his best-selling alt-comic is included here not just for the fine essay, a thoughtful meditation that signaled Clowes' maturity as an artist, but as a sterling example of an established cartoonist using the format within a specific context for a divergent effect from the bulk of his work. Modern Cartoonist felt immediate, special and in the pages of Eightball #18, a value-added surprise -- subtle reinforcements of Clowes' points on the comic book as an obsessed-over object. Cartoonists in general seem more inclined than ever to use handmade minis as convention giveaways, as business cards, or even temporary reports on works in progress. Some of these can be a revelation, like Jason's Meow Baby minis of his yet-to-be-published-in-America humor work. Modern Cartoonist is not only a good one it's one you can count on being able to buy.
Pattes De Mouche
The Pattes De Mouche books are prime examples of a publisher -- in this case L'Association -- embracing a format North American audiences related to homemade work in order to present stories that share a specific aesthetic quality. Top Shelf and Robot Comics have released similar lines, but neither were as good as this one. In the case of L'Association's effort, it consists mostly of pantomimed comics, or comics with very easy to follow writing and stories, done by the usual suspects of the 1990s French arts comics vanguard. The books by well-known names like Lewis Trondheim and Edmund Baudoin are of a very high quality, and the American reader can play it safe with that pair if they want or buy equally compelling works from cartoon authors with whom they're less familiar. Although these were much more easily found in the better comics shops at the time of their initial release, you still see them every now and then and they can be found on the Internet. The cost reflects both the professionalism of the presentation and the generally high quality of the art itself. You'll find yourself wishing that more North American publishers prepared snazzy little lines like this one. If you need someplace to start, try Non, Non, Non and Diablotus by Trondheim, both of which are funny and easy to read.
With occasional lapses, the New Zealand-based cartoonist Dylan Horrocks has kept the vast majority of his mini-comics series in print since his primary publishing venue became comic books, anthologies, and graphic novels. Nearly every issue of the original Pickle has been plundered for short story gems to fill up his regular books. This issue of Pickle, entitled "Sex," may be of the most interest among those Horrocks offers because it not only shows the thoughtful cartoonist stretching himself at a very young age in terms of story length and thematic ambition, the work itself has yet to be reprinted anywhere else and may prefigure concerns that the artist is taking into a longer sex-related comic due soon. Mini-comics are a great way to find obscure and out of print works from major cartoonists, although few keep that work available as diligently as Horrocks.
Shouldn't You Be Working? #5
Johnny Ryan completes the drawings and gag panels in Shouldn't You Be Working? in an offhand fashion during his various day jobs, employment frequently of the "they hire people to do that?" variety. This makes the reader a co-conspirator in dragging down the general gross national product, or at least the special target of a funny fellow office worker's attention. The quality of the gags and the development of Ryan's sure line are indicators of the talent that has fueled his much-hand-wringing-over comics series output to date. Astute readers can also figure out what Ryan watches on television and the relative importance of a few people close to the cartoonist, the kind of personal insight common to relaxed works encouraged by this format. Start with this issue, or with whatever one is new.
It is always fun to watch a young artist burn through their influences as furiously as John Pham has been torching his with various early works, and this lovingly handcrafted little book will remind many readers of artists like Chris Ware and Jordan Crane. I believe the concept behind Substitute Life is that Pham has taken time away from the rest of his life to temporarily concentrate on comics and increasing his skill level when it comes to craft. The comics and drawings become more diverting when the reader has to figure out where the cartoonist stands on his mission, although a longer piece on Ware and filmmaker John Cassevetes can certainly stand on its own. Substitute Life is the kind of book that makes you wish every artist had a journal like this one for sale, and a great, fancy example of the diary/sketchbook mini.
Supermonster #14: Gloriana
As a mini-comics series, Supermonster became really promising at about its fifth issue and blossomed into a must-read around its eighth or ninth. By the 14th edition, Huizenga was making comics as compelling as anyone in print. Huizenga uses an interesting variation of masking -- simple figure drawing reminiscent of early century cartoons, elegant to elaborate backgrounds and scene setting, with copious asides and commentaries that dip into fantasy. It's a testament to Huizenga's developing skills that in Gloriana you barely notice these components, and what comes across is a really humane, very gently paced exploration of American kindness and calmness. If you buy only one book off of this list, make it this one.
Tepid Summer 2003
You can purchase just about any issue of Tepid that John Hankiewicz has created the past four years or so and get the desired effect, as his minis are recommended for the general qualities that bind them rather than any individual story. Hankiewicz is a master of torpidity, hamstringing expectations of normal comics pacing so that the reader may be exposed to the grotesqueries of human relationships through a series of intimate freeze frames. He also uses absurd moments to play against those mundane qualities. What works about Hankiewicz in mini-comics is that the format allows him to develop incrementally without significant attention beyond that which comes looking for his work. It also gives the work a context that plays on the romance of the idiosyncratic artist, the notion that out there below the radar are cartoonists and artists of all kinds making startlingly odd comics. True in your circle of friends or not, Tepid is a great comic to feel you discovered.
One should never have to recommend Gary Panter, whose approach to comics is so primal and right-on that those inspired by those inspired by those inspired by the artist seem strange and new. This was my favorite in a bunch of new mini-comics released through his web site at prices definitely not for the junk-ethos minis crowd. What interests about these specific books at this moment in the medium's development is that through them you can view the fertile period of the late 1970s and early 1980s as groundwork for some of the almost overpowering art Panter attempts now.
What I find enjoyable about this short work from the admirably, increasingly and almost willfully obscure cartoonist Jordan Crane is the beauty of its design and the way in which Crane seems to be reaching for artistic affect without quite nailing down what it is he's trying to accomplish. This is the mini-comic as first draft in a positive way, and since its release Crane has announced both a prequel and sequel to Shortcut that may change the way readers regard this projected middle chapter. As a stand-alone piece it makes for a charming little story, one that indicates there may be a vital fantasist lurking behind the artist's preferred romantic realism.
It's easy to think of Warren Craghead as Chris Ware's slightly unsettled creative cousin, or Jason Shiga's inspirational uncle, in that he shares with those artists a willingness to break up narrative conventions in a lyrical way. Once one of the bright up-and-comers of the small press world, Craghead never enjoyed major success in either monetary terms or the crazed welcome from readers and fellow cartoonists that so often serves as a comics stand-in. Yet Craghead's comics feature as interesting a set of takes on the medium and its possibility as anyone's. A common complaint about the cartoonist is that his comics are slight, but the narrowness of content seems to be part of the point -- even more so now in works like Thickets, with its minimalist rendering and spare picture arrangements. Craghead takes very simple events and stretches them out gossamer thin, so that the intricacy of the considered moment becomes beautiful.
John Kerschbaum would be my first hire in a strange, nightmare world where robot king Timewarnertron 2020 demanded I take the reins to Mad Magazine. Kerschbaum can be ragged yet controlled like Al Jaffee, rude like Don Martin, good with shifts in tone like Dave Berg, and an orchestral clutter-hound on the order of Will Elder. His mini-comics have been of such consistent high quality that you always want to ask him why this work has to be released regularly through one of the established alt-comics publishers as a continuation of his own self-published efforts. His books for now suit the format, and have allowed him to grow substantially as a narrative artist rather than simply a shocking and lurid cartoonist. Like Souther Salazar, Kerschbaum is the kind of artist from whom you should buy at least one comic -- any at all -- if this specific mini is no longer available. The story of a boy and his enormous, wooden penis, Timberdoodle is disturbing all the way through and would be my first choice. Dumb Cluck and an untitled snowman comic are equally entertaining but veer slightly away from Kerschbaum's typical approach and are thus less representative of his overall output.
Trazo de Tina
Jessica Abel was one of the seminal figures in the 1990s mini-comics scene, for the sophisticated feel to her early work, its strange place as at once almost archetypal young-persons alt-comix work of that time yet atypical in her point of view towards those settings and milieus, and her ability to network and recognize other talent. She returns to the form frequently, for projects in between her ongoing comics series work. This works makes the list as one of those transitional mini-comics, where Abel seemed to be working through a few heady European (and perhaps South American) art influences that have since shown up in her traditionally formatted comics. _
The All-Tract Assortment deal is detailed on the Jack Chick web site, www.chick.com/catalog/assortments/0915.asp. Artichoke #1-3, Cecilia Crocodile's Really Really Good Day, King-Cat #62, Horace, Love Looks Left, Substitute Life, Trazo de Tina, and Fleep can all be found at highwaterbooks.com. Jumbo Jape #8, Ironclad, Supermonster #14, Thickets, and Tepid 2003 can be had from the store at usscatastrophe.com. Individual vendors: Jordan Crane is reddingk.com, Souther Salazar is southersalazar.net, John Kerschbaum is fontanellepress.com, Gary Panter is garypanter.com, Matt Feazell is http://members.aol.com/cynicalman/, Johnny Ryan is johnnyr.com and Dylan Horrocks is hicksville.co.nz. Try Greg Stump either through the publisher Alternative Comics or through email@example.com. This magazine's publisher, Fantagraphics, sells Eightball #18. The comic book publisher Top Shelf sells Cirkus New Orleans. Various Pattes de Mouche can be obtained through the better comic book stores (Quimby's, Comic Relief, Million Year Picnic), or marsimport.com.