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Minimalism Archives #12 -- SPXPO Batch
posted December 24, 2004
 

Minimalism Archives #12
Dreams in Disguise
Tom Spurgeon

Most of the works in the following review revue were picked up at the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland, one of the world's great opportunities to become immersed in mini-comics. Reading through a randomly-picked cross-section from that event reminds one of the dangers of assuming a common ground, or common attitude, concerning small-press publication and the proper function of a mini-comic. Love letters to mainstream comics storytelling stand alongside obscure artistic statements, last-choice publishing platforms embrace the format as tightly as comics designed to be art objects. Divorced from the motive of profit, perhaps the only thing thing that mini-comics share is an artist's fervent absorption in final product, its human equivalent a banquet room of Ignatz attendees who only have eyes for their 10 or 15 aesthetic soul mates. While calling an American mainstream comics convention a gathering of tribes stretches the concept of a gathering to warm bodies occupying the same retail space, applying that term to the Small Press Expo may stretch the definition of tribe to embrace a thousand individual motivations united by an accident of format.

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Geeks in Disguise #10
Daniel Langsdale
Blackfoot Studios West

After a dozen pages of stately-paced exposition and what seems like endless talking between various characters, cartoonist Daniel Langsdale gives the readers of Geeks in Disguise #10 the issue's most interesting scene. Seated around a table, with the air of mock-importance that high school students invest in meaningless organizational activities, Langsdale's characters play out a mini-drama of sexual sublimation. The more socially active of two female student friends pounces on a boy of vague to non-existent interest to her slightly less comfortable pal. Langsdale nails the element of betrayal that comes not so much from the flirting but the fact that the aggressive girl was only barely interested in helping with the dance in the first place, an amusing and too-true portrayal of how some teenager conflate social obligations of all types.

While it becomes obvious that the characters and some of their relationships are derived from real-life observation, Geeks in Disguise also has some sort of overriding superhero motif, an almost impenetrable plot sheath of hinted-at laboratories and terse, vaguely-worded agreements between the affected students. Conveniently for story purposes, the powers also hold Great Thematic Truths, such as a largely-ignored boy who seems to have the power to disappear and the slightly more interesting, but similarly played out, notion of flying around as a personality quirk to be mastered or mitigated in the process of growing up. These genre elements add little to the best parts of the story, although Langsdale may be close enough to the age of his characters that self-expression through genre motifs may just feel right in a way that an older reader may not appreciate or understand. And although an occasional interesting idea may bubble its way to the surface, Langsdale currently lacks powers of observation (and the artistic chops -- rooms change size, and sparse to non-existent backgrounds are common) to give the reader a compelling, realistic setting in which to tell his stories.

Jumbo Jape
Sean Bieri

One of the better-known names amongst mini-comics practitioners, Sean Bieri works as a Detroit-area art director, and has written insightful analysis of alternative comics for a mainstream, arts-savvy audience via local southern Michigan media. The equivalent of a basketball playground legend, Bieri has long been a favorite of artists and writers who are either interested in the form or have encountered Bieri at Midwestern regional or small-press-friendly national comics shows. Some raves for his work focus on its professional, accessible, and all-together not-what-you'd-expect-from-minis nature -- the kind of compliments that hilariously and unintentionally damn everyone else with faint praise.

Jumbo Jape is a compendium of work drawn from popular convention buys of past years, "Fix," "Jape," and "5 O'Clock Shadow." Based on the material inside, it's clear why Bieri's a favorite of both mini-comics skeptics and enthusiasts. At its most refined, Bieri's art recalls Terry LaBan's more meticulously rendered work, although Bieri lacks LaBan's virtuosity of depiction within that style -- his worlds are just as appealing, just less fulsome. In addition, Bieri's writing crackles with Lampoon-alumni slickness. Amongst its mini-comics peers, Jumbo Jape stands tall as a model of execution.

The works collected in Jumbo Jape fall into three broad categories: broad, aggressive social satires; observational humor with a hint of cartoon exaggeration, and comics parodies. Many of the social satires fall flat. The longest, "Hard-Boiled Hygienist" seems more of an excuse for Bieri to work with Toth-style figures than a story, while many of the shorter ones make unremarkable, even obvious points or telegraph their endings. Bieri's comics parodies have the opposite problem: they just end. But mixing Conan the Barbarian with Peanuts and Thimble Theatre with the Christ story makes for some great gags along the way, many of which depend on those exquisite choices, which one would guess were made for the potential of humor to be found in their contrasting themes.

Finally, like most cartoonists, Bieri's observational comic stories work according to the strength of his observations. The stories which take the time to draw the reader into a short narrative, "Vive Le Difference" and a two-pager featuring a pair of girls watching a movie on TV, fare much better than those which immediately leapfrog their way to one of Bieri's aggressive laugh lines. That in fact, becomes the recurring theme in reading Jumbo Jape: that more of his work in general, and more space developing each story when they appear, would allow his natural facility as an artist to better work in his favor. Sean Bieri's comics don't demand recognition as much as encourage it, but at what point is it unfair to use the context in which an artist has been presented as an avenue of criticism? Fortunately, Jumbo Jape is an impressive highlight reel worth watching on its own.

Love is Like the Sun
Memories are Made of This
Garret Izumi
Shortwave Productions

Straddling a line of the artist's own making between obscure mini-comics and accessible art object, the works of Garret Izumi have in the last half-decade become more refined and, in the context of the small press world, easier to understand. Izumi's love of iconography seems less daunting after the recent flurry of interest in the woodcut artists and their long narratives. Izumi's comics work best when the eloquent simplicity of his pictures engage broad subject matter, such as in Love is Like the Sun, a hand-assembled and nicely-produced book of short stories. Even the dialogued story featuring Izumi's disappointingly imagined human stand-ins, comes across as less arch and more graceful than previous efforts in verbal-visual blend. Those wishing to understand Izumi's approach to objects more clearly might also look into obtaining a copy of Memories are Made of This, a photo study in mini-comics form notable for the humor of the captions, and Izumi's special attention to both shape and the reader's private projections of meaning.

Passenger Side
Ishkabibble
Vincent Stall
King Mini

An extremely slight portrait of a life lived in quiet desperation, Passenger Side offers attractive art and capable writing that really don't seem to go anywhere. The lack of ambition displayed seems to justify the format in some strange and probably unhealthy manner, as well as adds a layer of ironic commentary to the mini's choice of subject. A day in the life of a sweaty, fish-eyed office drone, Passenger Side makes a nice point in passing about the nature of emblematic guilt. Beyond that, it offers little more insight than you yourself might mentally scribble on a napkin watching some poor soul climb on board your downtown elevator. But the writing is solid, and the art looks quite lovely at times, particularly in the single-color, silk-screened cover. Despite the outrageous design of the lead character, Stall's narrative instincts are strong and the composition of the panels, particularly in the way the blacks frame and hound the lead, adds a great deal to the reader's perception of the protagonist's ugly, sweaty, miserable life. Passenger Side should whet the appetite for longer, more sustained work from the cartoonist.

Those so inclined should seek out Ishkabibble, a contribution from Stall, with art slightly less accomplished than the newer work but still distinctive, and a story that reads like a fan letter to Ben Katchor. We see a few moments in the business day of a shlumpy, middle-aged businessman. As he walks home to his apartment, he addresses the readers with a monologue about his life perceptions of same. Stall's art seems barely accomplished enough, at least at this point, to convey the blending of man and landscape which the story seems to demand. But the ambition is noteworthy; as is Stall's restraint in making the mini's feature character more depressingly ordinary than romantic.

"Please Don't Sue Me!" Comics
Ken Wheaton
The Funny Book Institute

Who can resist a classic quarter-page mini-comic featuring pun-filled superhero jokes, a not-much-better-than-lukewarm recommendation emblazoned on the back cover like God's own handwriting (Tony Isabella's "I smiled at every cartoon and chuckled out loud at several of them."), and a company logo that says simply "FBI." Sporting the company's initials, it's easy to imagine this mini as some sort of bizarre mirror universe version of a Fantagraphics comic, put to press in a world where Dennis Fujitake still drew men in tights and they never stopped asking "What's Wrong with the X-Men?"

Actually, this mini-comic probably wouldn't have made the cut at that company, either. Wheaton's art is cursory, gag-cartoonist fodder and most of his jokes depend on recontextualizing superhero likes, dislikes, and catchphrases into situations where they take on humorous meanings (the superteam Avengers "assembling" at a puzzle convention). At times, Wheaton's willingness to bend even the fragile super-reality surrounding such characters for the sake of the joke takes on brave, Bushmiller-like proportions. But let's not get ridiculous: these are gag jokes for superhero fanboys. The mini-comic that houses them is included here as evidence that the old-time collector's ethic, that fond, adoring look at men in tights and newspaper gag strips from the safe and comforting Sunday afternoon of same-day nostalgia, will never really abdicate its place in American comics culture. Third printing.

Randy and the Christmas Pimple
John Kerschbaum
Fontanelle Press

Kerschbaum lends his extremely facile art to this rather pedestrian tale of Christmas-time cruelty. The comic's protagonist, Randy, is a sniveling idiot-child who develops a gigantic, festering zit at the end of his nose the day of the Christmas dance. Grandma doesn't care, Grandma's new boyfriend exists almost solely as a vague physical threat, and even Santa whips on Randy's ass when he and his zit are invited to join the reindeer team in order to provide some Rudolph-style leadership. Like some of the great Mad artists, Kerschbaum's angular art expresses its horrors so appealingly it's hard to take the nasty worldview on display as seriously as it perhaps deserves. The great joys in this mini are found in the capriciousness with which that ugliness is put on display, and the slightly disjointed narrative with which Kerschbaum allows the story to unfold. The plot leaps forward without warning, Randy is punched in the face by a dog offpanel, and Santa is given the strange last word. Randy deserves to have it piled on for his stupid-looking duck shirt alone, but savaging a moron almost always sounds funnier than it reads.

Supermonster #12: Gertrude
Kevin Huizenga

Comics should be the perfect medium for exploring the stifling hideousness of modern suburbia, and its slightly more hip cousin, the cloistered urban neighborhood. But try as some cartoonists might, the subject seems to slip through even the most capable hands. Some of the best post-alternative comics make a case for suburbia as a place of simple comforts (Porcellino) or inane consumerism (Hart), but choose to explore its more insidious side as a symptom of individual behavior rather than setting. Others seem to stress the pains of insularity that result from living within an active non-environment, but feature protagonists who never seem to engage their surroundings as anything more than a vehicle for the leviathan of mass culture: autobiographical protagonists like Joe Chiappetta never seem to live in specific suburban villages but in McDonald's-like franchises of generic America values.

The longest story in Kevin Huizenga's Supermonster #12, "The Wild Kingdom, Starring Glenn Ganges," uses an obtuse narrative strategy that works extremely well as a dissection of a certain way of living. Its narrator participates in the mind-numbing banalities of errand-running and household chores, but keeps a specific eye on the pigeons, cats, and cockroaches that cross his path. By letting his story unfold naturally, over dozens of pages and without words, one sees both the daily routine and the discoveries of hidden wildlife as activities that help sustain the narrator. In lesser hands, the natural law that asserts itself by story's end might be seen as an emotional capstone or even a betrayal of the live-and-let-live ethic expressed throughout. But for Huizenga, the ending seems to indicate another layer of meaning in the interrelationships to which the narrator seeks to become accustomed -- a stronger, more resonant point.

The other stories in Supermonster #12 are a mixed bag. Huizenga's explorations in comics form read better than his illustrated text pieces, although both showcase insightful set pieces: a sideways shift from videotape watching to a Border's book store as a signifier of the unreality of visiting home from college, extra garbage along the curb as a measure of a life slowly slipping from the neighborhood. The only sour note is an overdependency on over-genericized facial characteristics, which jar to the point they risk having the curious anti-McCloudian effect of distancing the reader from the characters due to their unrealistic look. Given the skill with which the backgrounds and setting are evoked, a Jeff Nicholson-style choice for cartoon exaggeration where it's needed least seems curious. Still, this is a book and talent worth seeking out.

(Geeks in Disguise #10 has a cover price of $1.50. The contact address given is Daniel Langsdale, 3278 Bullwinkle Drive, Reno, NV 89512-1135)

(Jumbo Jape sports a cover price of $3 for its 60 pages. Contact is 1028 Vinewood, Detroit, MI 48216; elefish@metrotimes.net)

(Love is Like the Sun doesn't have a price, and neither does Memories are Made of This. But not only does Izumi attend the occasional convention, his Shortwave Productions may be contacted at 39120 Argonaut Way, #731, Fremont, CA, 94536; gaimji@gateway.net)

(Passenger Side has a cover price of $1. The address given in the back is Vincent Stall, Circulation Department, 89 South 10th Street Suite Number 315, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 55403. Ishkabibble's cover price is $2.)

("Please Don't Sue Me!" Comics has a cover price of 50 cents, and the address given is 783 Peck Road, Hilton, NY 14468. Or ty ktwktw@aol.com)

(Randy and the Christmas Pimple is billed as a "supplement" to Kerschbaum's ongoing Wiggly Reader series. The Fontanelle Press contact address is 438 Court Street, Suite 103, Brooklyn, NY 11231. Or try thewigglyreader@yahoo.com)

(Supermonster #12 has a price of $3. Address given is PO Box 12299, St. Louis, MO 63157. E-mail contact given is supermonster77@hotmail.com)