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Minimalism Archives #5 -- CCI '02 Books
posted December 24, 2004
 

Comics Freely Offered (Eight Minis, One Regular)
By Tom Spurgeon

The following comics were all pressed into the hands of this reviewer by their cartoonists at Comic-Con International 2002, and are reviewed here to make for a relatively timely column and to encourage similar exchanges in the future. It still surprises how few mini-comics artists make consistent donations to even a semi-regular column like this one. Beyond the potential for review -- perhaps better understood as the miniscule chance for review of anything not placed directly in front of someone else's face -- the libraries of institutions like this one have an undeniable historical function that should prove to be of great importance to this specific form of comics, particularly until more of the larger collections of the medium's best catch up. Don't let your minis fade away.

Any reviewers frustrated by lack of freebies are encouraged to adopt the Tom Jones strategy, the basic method by which the pop star instigated multiple decades of tossed panties. Plant someone behind the targeted convention table who has already agreed to slip a few comics your way when you present yourself. With any luck, soon there will be a frenzy of silk-screened color extended in your direction, pressed between the fingers of multiple, extended hands. The leather pants are optional.

I'll Wait Outside Your Room
The Monster That Ate Stars
Souther Salazar

"I'll Wait Outside Your Room" is a great mini-comic of the lonely boy variety, bursting at the seams with the kind of hard-to-define effect that makes a reviewer slam unlikely words together and cross his fingers. Neither "fevered elegance" nor "studied improvisation" comes close to doing Salazar's comic book justice, although both are closer than a third choice, "extroverted reticence." The effect Salazar achieves here is extremely fragile, suspended perfectly between a window into someone's personal diaries and a very considered artistic effect. It makes you look twice or even three times at every page not just to make certain you've picked everything up but to capture the fleeting feeling it achieves more effectively. Stop paying attention, and this comic flutters right out of your hands.

Salazar's comic is divided into 46 one-page efforts, of varying sizes and paper quality, which look like they were assembled from the materials available to an elementary school student working off the art cart. The pages that stick out on a first reading are the gags, which are blunt and funny, their crude drawing an additional strong point rather than a craft necessity. Salazar's crude jokesters are incredibly rude people demanding yet another level of undeserved forgiveness, almost but not quite sympathetic in their cluelessness. RC Harvey would approve of their visual-verbal blend, the way Salazar's style informs the written word in each gag. I would buy a whole book of such cartoons.

One way to read "I'll Wait Outside Your Room" is to start with those simple cartoons and discover expanded meanings through them in the rest of the book. A couple of comics utilize the same character type but in a more complex thematic way. Sometimes the joke is slightly more sophisticated, like one where a lonely, sloppily dressed figure looks at a city aflame as we are informed, "He forgot the baseball cards." Other times the effect is more than a joke. On one page, a figure rests on the back of a unicorn, looking blissful in a way that makes you dwell less on the cartoon and more on the person who might wish longingly for such an odd bed. Crude figures guest star in the margins of the looser pages, stick-figure remnants of what look like attempts at childhood comics making: the Stars Wars cast, the actors from Cheers, a boy in a top hat riding a cat in a mad collage or even the more advanced scene work like the one called "Kids in a line for handball."

Rather than evoking nostalgia through a standard narrative, Salazar blurs the line between what looks like ancient comics and what reads like projected commentary from a sadder, wiser creator. In one of the few multi-panel narratives in the book, two simply drawn comic characters banter and decided to go for a flight with the same sort of narrative aimlessness that the best comics done by kids have. But in the final panel, one of the characters says matter of factly, "I hope I never die." This works as both naïve celebration of the youthful pursuits represented by flying around and a regretful overlay that pays tribute to lost innocence. "I'll Wait Outside Your Room" is as good as any of its similarly-themed mini-comics relatives at invoking the kind of artistic experience that comes with a box of old papers on your lap, taking too much time losing yourself in them when the rest of the garage needs cleaning.

My favorite moment in "The Monster That Ate Stars" comes early on in the story, and in fact can't be nailed down to any specific page. The very normal child with whom the comic begins slips into his tale in a wonderfully seamless fashion, starting with booming laughter and flailed arms on what might be anyone's front stoop and ending as a monster threatening everything that exists. Salazar wisely never quite lets you see the kid transform from narrator into protagonist, giving the story a much-needed tone of comedic indulgence. The story has an idealized child's momentum. It barrels through a fantasy one usually sees designed to combat feelings of adolescent inadequacy, but so dramatically and convincingly collapses in on itself that one imagines the kid at the beginning of the story prancing with joy just at holding our attention for such a long time.

Keeping Two
The Shortcut
Jordan Crane

The most interesting effect in "Keeping Two," taken from Crane's on-line serial at highwaterbooks.com, comes from the fact its intertwined narrative is grossly, dramatically uneven. Crane features two couples. The first arrives home from a mildly unpleasant road trip and settles back into an early evening domestic routine; the second pair suffers a stillbirth and begins a rapid spiral into despair and blame in the days following. Although the balance may redress itself in future installments, the effect so far is to bring into focus the banal nature of our march through time, and its resistance to even life-changing events. Something as boring as dirty dishes and something as momentous as a lost child both get processed through the same cycle of everyday tedium.

There are some sophisticated graphic touches in "Keeping Two." Sound effects don't exist cleanly but break into bits of scattered, intrusive noise. More dramatically, Crane represents the second couple's loss of child by having them both periodically carry or cuddle or care for an empty silhouette of their child. The visual metaphor's versatility and Crane's restraint in using it keep it from going over the top. No one else can see the child, and the child itself is barely there. While this chapter ends with a standard confrontational cliffhanger, the delicate pacing and unique graphic touches keep this from slipping into morose, manipulative wallowing. Future chapters should prove interesting as well.

Penned under the name Jane d'Rancor, Crane's offering "The Shortcut" looks almost like a knowing tribute to the Highwater Books gang with whom the cartoonist has become creatively and commercially aligned in recent years. The book is tiny, and features juvenile stationery end papers, deliberate pacing, and strongly iconic characters against elaborate backgrounds. Whether or not the effect is intentional, the comic offers up the same sense of narrative thrill and visual pleasure that one finds in comics from cartoonists like Brian Ralph and Mat Brinkman. This is a slight effort, but one from which most comics fans may derive some pleasure.

The story features a small boy and his talking cat taking an impossible forest shortcut to bypass several blocks of urban neighborhood. While in the forest, they run afoul of a large wood demon, which they alternately flee and torture in typical fairy story fashion. The comic exists for little more than to give a visual thrill or two -- Crane knows his way around a monster design, and the characters are generic but charmingly drawn. The one picture per page give the story an extremely uniform pace that suits its fantastic subject matter -- it feels like a story being experienced rather than told. Allowing the reader to linger on individual pictures is a good idea when they are as generally nice-looking as these are. Crane should cut loose more often, and cut loose more fully, as the package does take on some slight, apologetic moments where Crane seems overly ready to declare he's only goofing off.

The Motherless One
Gene Luen Yang

The name Gene Yang may ring a few bells as the Xeric award-winning cartoonist behind Gordon Yamamoto and the King of the Geeks, a comic whose title is more memorable than its content. Subtitled "A tale from the early life of the Monkey King, folk hero of ancient China," Yang's latest effort is slight but entertaining. Its main strengths are the richness of the source material and Yang's comic timing, the combination of which works well to cover the stories with an appropriately disrespectful modern veneer that stands in for the earthiness for the original folk versions.

Yang's character designs are clean and attractive, yet they seem too stiff to provide the cartoonist with the kind of narrative versatility that involves reader with such characters. The Monkey King makes several expressions in combat that look more like he's suffering from severe face tics or even a stroke than look like reactions to what's going on. In addition, it's a shame someone with Yang's clean line would even consider lettering by computer -- the generic font used by Yang cheapens the whole presentation. Still, Yang has the tone right, and protagonist is an appealing bad ass who asks interesting, self-reflective questions. This could be developed further with interesting results.

Nothingness: Big Questions #5
Anders Brekhus Nilsen

This is a comic book put to press by an actual printer in Canada, by the interesting young artist whose previous books in this series were reviewed here and who will be one of the cartoonists participating in Chris Oliveros' special showcase title for promising newcomers. Big Questions #5 is featured here for two reasons. First, this looks more like a handcrafted effort than any comic published the traditional way since Poot #1. But it's also undeniably handsome, indicating the direction many mini-comics have gone in the last five years and also the increasing sophistication of the comic book buyer when it comes to formats that stretch our expectations of the standard pamphlet. Second, Nilsen, who is most often compared to Jon Lewis despite being a much more graceful artist, is like all of the cartoonists whose mini-comics are presented here in that what he gives the reader is more a style, a narrative point of view, than a compelling work of art in which those efforts are seamlessly integrated and thus invisible. Nilsen may be ready to take that next step, and one hopes he has stores of confidence generated by experiments in storytelling and tone like the bird stories found here and in his past mini-comics.

Ramsden
Though I Slumber, My Heart is Still Awake
Torah Teaches That the World was Created with as Much Effort as it Takes You to Pronounce the Sound of an "H"
Sammy Harkham

One of the joys of mini-comics is that it enables the reader to watch a young cartoonist's development in something closer to real time than what happens through comics by an established publisher. Sammy Harkham has been doing comics for a few years now, most notably in the anthology Kramer's Ergot. Harkham has reached that point with his art when the influences begin to drop away and become replaced by a recognizable style. Whether or not that style develops and Harkham becomes a cartoonist to watch depends much more on what happens later on. But all interesting cartoonists take this step.

The three mini-comics Harkham had on hand in San Diego come in a unique size, square at five and a quarter inch per side. All three feature a single panel per comics page. In "Though I Slumber" and "Torah Teaches," Harkham exploits that formal choice as a way to control pacing, slowing his comics to a deliberate crawl. Both protagonists, an axe-wielder and an escapee from a destroyed city on a boat, seem bewildered by the cosmic forces at hand. The gentleman with the axe simply takes everything in stride and returns to what he does best, rewarded for his patience with a new forest. The man on the boat mutilates himself and pokes a hole in the bottom of his craft, but achieves a sort of pained enlightenment at story's end. Reading the two one after the other begs the question of which character is better off at story's end. The bloody face at the conclusion of "Torah Teaches" -- one of the few times Harkham's work looks reminiscent of Al Columbia's -- makes the appearance of a dove in "Though I Slumber" read suspiciously like a thwarted opportunity.

In "Ramsden," Harkham seems to be taking his visual clues from 1930s comics to tell in rather straight-ahead fashion the story of a 1930s boxer. The protagonist is pitiful, particularly as Harkham portrays his tendency to hit his wives in as unflattering a way as possible. Yet except for some very funny moments, such as a humorous speech given by an American boxer Ramsden is accused of avoiding, the mini-biography seems a bit perfunctory, its spare look and slow pacing extraneous choices of style rather than something demanded by the subject matter. Harkham is making promising choices, and the effort expended is admirable, but the end result is not yet compelling comics.

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Minimalism
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