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Minimalism Archives #3 -- Round-Up
posted December 24, 2004
 

When It Rains, It Pours
By Tom Spurgeon

Two artists from Seattle and three from Portland give a Pacific Northwest feel to the following suite of reviews, the first of hopefully many similar attempts to establish some semblance of control over the teetering Comics Journal mini-comics pile. While mini-comics have become the format of choice for any number of interesting sub-movements and burgeoning artistic careers, artists like these remind us they also exist as individual art objects on the periphery of an already-marginalized form: the subject of hand-to-hand exchanges, the secondary expressions of established cartoonists and industry figures, the bootleg tapes of the comic book world. And as much as mini-comics beg to be analyzed, they ask even more strongly to be traded, made, and listened to.

Angry Youth Comix No. 11
Johnny Ryan
Angry Youth Comix

Where have all the funnybooks gone? The current alternative comics scene isn't particularly flush with old-fashioned joke-centered comics. It's not that these comics have gone out of fashion as much as the creators who huddled around this particular section of the store are occupying more of their time elsewhere. Peter Bagge is enjoying the fruits of his sustained '90s artistic success with more high-profile print and on-line magazine gigs than comic books, Evan Dorkin has enjoyed a similar writing-gig expansion, Rick Altergott, Ivan Brunetti and Pat Moriarity have settled into irregular publishing patterns, and some other name humor cartoonists from a decade ago have seemingly withdrawn from the art form altogether. As for artists who have launched comics in the last five years, Pete Sickman-Garner continues to improve and impress but his work wouldn't yet demand a place in a re-launched Weirdo, while Dean Haspiel has settled into the heroic romanticism with which he is obviously most comfortable. Alternative newspaper strips -- work from Millionaire, Revess, Henderson, Smell of Steve -- has far outstripped the comic book for dependable, humorous content.

Johnny Ryan is the most fully-realized of a number of crude-humor talents (and the best-known, with the possible single exception of Kieron Dwyer) who have recently bubbled up from the mini-comics scene and seem fully fixated on comic books as their format of choice. Angry Youth Comix #11 is a strong precursor to Ryan's recent Fantagraphics funnybook launch (where in some people's eyes, and using the logic of the above paragraph, he fills a pressing need for that publisher, at least as far as any alternative publisher has the time and energy to think about niches and genres). Even better, AYC #11 serves up a mixture of single-joke one-pagers and broad character-driven multi-pagers that make it that rarest of all mini-comics finds: the dense, satisfying read.

Ryan viciously rips into everyone, and discerning his likes and dislikes is to read the nuanced tissue damage around hamstring scars. For instance, Ryan pulverizes the notion of rebellious stances to the point he devotes an entire strip to one of his characters performing fellatio on a donkey and slitting his own throat, and it's still clear by comic's end that he prefers that sort of person to loutish, beer-swilling, establishment jocks. Ryan's work is remarkably cohesive. Each component -- the throwaway character's names, the way the figures look, the vomiting and character reaffirmation that ends most stories -- are funny in and of themselves but also stress the larger, nastier worldview. In other words, Ryan isn't using elements of the comics form to present crudely-realized ideas, he's exploring an idiosyncratic point of view through a grasp of the medium's strengths in its entirety, a working foundation on which it may be possible to build a long career.

Doot Doot Garden
Craig Thompson
Top Shelf Comics

Doot Doot Garden purports to be from something called the "small batch series" -- a great idea made even greater in my own mind by the fact that at the time of this review I couldn't find any information on it. The Top Shelf web site advertised on this comic's back cover didn't have the book listed under any of the appropriate sub-designations, and the copy I received lacked a price. From the looks of this work, the "small batch series" seems designed to feature mini-comics format books from Top Shelf regulars, collecting previously published minis work and other oddities. The reduced expectations of the mini-comics format make this a savvy publishing choice, if that's indeed what's intended.

Doot Doot Garden reprints the "Goodbye, Chunky Rice" cartoonist's 24-hour comic, the best of his two major mini-comics, and a few magazine assignments. It's interesting given the context of his recent alternative comics notices to re-examine the work that kicked off the Chunky Rice pre-buzz. Although Thompson's 1999 graphic novel was by far the most visually accomplished debut last year, the art connoisseur's appetite for new blood combined with a really sub-par year for sustained work across the art form to result in more than a few disproportional claims on the book's behalf -- and I say that as a fan of Thompson and Chunky Rice. The mini-backlash that followed was a rarity in alternative comics circles in that it seemed based less on jealousy and kicking the new guy in the teeth than on a specific critical oversight: how the overwhelming romanticism of Thompson's writing bordered on preciousness, which given the extremely stylized nature of the art the book made it even harder for the reader to find emotional entry into the situations presented.

All of this important to our understanding of Doot Doot Garden, because I think that those who lost themselves in the first-rate visuals and back-of-the-station-wagon, end-of-summer-vacation romanticism of Chunky Rice will find Doot Doot Garden to be a horribly disappointing, even ugly book -- even though the art is accomplished even in the early pieces. For others, it may provide a wish list of items one might see in future Thompson works. Personally, I don't miss the Jay Stephens-style self-awareness as much as the underlying sense of rudeness and horror -- animals being chopped in half, characters whose interaction with Chunky Rice is too brief to give them a humanity and background that might undercut their effectiveness as antagonists, even giddy explorations of man's undying appetite for self-inflicted loneliness -- that might help provide emotional ballast for Thompson's more frothy and poetic flights of fancy.

Hear-Say
Greg Cook

This is a extremely pleasant little book by the cartoonist behind a half-dozen similarly admirable efforts, Greg Cook. More than any other cartoonist, Cook serves as an exemplar for the Highwater line of books, his graceful and idiosyncratic drawings making for a fragile, idiosyncratic language of childhood clumsiness and potential adult violence. As such, he may serve as a barometer of the line far more clearly than any of the higher-profiles artists with whom publisher Tom Devlin works.

Hear-Say offers a double experiment in the formal connections drawn between how comics reader experience sound on the page. The story follows a nearly-deaf gentleman through a seemingly average day, complete with friendly interaction over a gaming table and a restaurant meal. When he ends up on the shore, and pulls out a horn to use as a crude hearing aid, the reader not only gets to delight in the added sound elements, but the meaning of the empty word balloons becomes explicit, and their silence in retrospect becomes deafening. It's such a nice trick that readers may not even notice how Cook plays with white space and incomplete drawing, a subliminal reference to the incomplete worlds from which we all draw inferences to create a whole. All in all, a very charming and interesting experiment, well suited to the mini-comics format.

Heartbreakers Minidigest 2000
Anina Bennett and Paul Guinan
Big Red Hair

This was a freebie giveaway being handed out by the intermittent comics series creators from their booth at last year's Comic Con International, and, one supposes, future meet-and-greet opportunities. A sixteen-page foldover with a single-color cover (shades of red, natch), it is the kind of thing one receives rarely that nonetheless seems perfectly suited for promotion -- taking home the minidigest, I have a much better idea as to scope and breadth of a series I do not read. With its mazes, puzzles and penny table games, the Heartbreakers Minidigest 2000 also takes advantage of the disposable nature of mini-comics, allowing for the kind of writing on the comics page that most may be loathe to indulge within a full-sized comic.

But despite educating the reader, HBMD2K does a less-than- successful job selling it. Both Guinan's art and Bennett's writing look serviceable, but the stand-alone story (art by "xtine") provided in the digest underscores a fundamental difficulty of doing lighter-than-average science fiction soap opera: the clash of genres may work against one another, the dialogue and character interaction existing in some space that floats above the details that readers accumulate in order to better relate to the actors within it. Those familiar with the genre neighborhood may be able to buy in anyway, and from the evidence provided Heartbreakers seems like the sort of series that holds onto a rabid core of savvy comics readers fans, the kind that may occasionally throw up their hands and stamp their feet for the lack of its wider success.

Monster 2000
Various
Fort Thunder

Monster is the house anthology from Fort Thunder, the cabal of cartoonists and artists whose uncompromising approach to art for art's sake provided a disproportionate share of the great moments in mini-comics in the 1990s. Although one news article about the Fort Thunder enclave states that Monster is monthly, my understanding is that it's not only irregularly published but creatively numbered, a suitable approach for a magazine that doesn't so much change editors as only ever has one when the impulse to edit strikes a likely candidate.

According to Brian Ralph in his interview with Megan Kelso, Monster 2000, the issue on hand at last year's Small Press Expo, was produced under the editorial guidance of Leif Goldberg. It is a beautiful, messy, glorious object that reminds one of a pile of construction paper art projects stored at the bottom of a drawer used by a second grade class of world-beating geniuses. The usual suspects provide good work: particularly good are Keith McCulloch's tree gag (reminiscent of Feiffer) and non-sequitur spouting animals; Brian Chippendale's terminal, insect-like inscrutability; and Jordan Crane's narrative dead-ends so slickly drawn they almost seem out of place amidst the majority of the contributions. Surprises include Erhin Roozendalal and the editor's 3-D strip, complete with clumsy insertion of glasses. Many of the other contributions are less than satisfactory on their own, but contribute to the anthology's messy vibe. Taped together, drawn over, and scribbled on, Monster 2000 fascinates even when it frustrates and disgusts.

My Naked, Naked Friends
Steve Lieber

Lieber's Xeroxed foldover makes for a handy convention giveaway: 12 studies from his sketchbooks, all nudes. The artist behind Oni's Whiteout series and various reasonably high-profile gigs at DC Comics, Lieber's mini serves as a reminder that he can draw, that he works at his drawing, and his artistic career will hopefully be measured in the fruits of the growth that comes from that sort of hard work. It makes a great business card.

Barring some sort of prurient interest in drawn nudes, the pleasure one receives out of the mini probably comes from comparing the work here to the published comics work. The figures here share the same solid, believable sense of mass and weight displayed by character in Lieber's published work. And while the nature of the exercise may explicitly work against this, the figures in My Naked, Naked Friends lack the kind of expressiveness in face and form that typifies adventure comics from those working out of the American adventure comics tradition.

Shouldn't You Be Working? #3
Johnny Ryan
Angry Youth Comix

This is one of those concept-over-content winners, even though the content is fine, too. Like many artists, Ryan works day jobs to make ends meet. Like many cartoonists, Ryan draws at work a lot. These quarter-page books are collected from Ryan's workplace sketches, complete with a description of the type of job worked ("I was working at Greatfood.com for a couple of weeks, then at the Catholic Arch-Diocese for a while, then a urological clinic.")

Based on the drawings -- and there's no way to tell how many fail to make it into a volume -- Ryan is a prolific and funny sketch artist. Shouldn't You Be Working? is full of gag humor: stupid characters ("Grosso, Grossest of the Sickies," and "The Old Baby"), one-liners about obtuse concepts ("monkey money," a "jelly suit"), and old-fashioned humorous drawing (a portrait of Buh-Buh Ray Dudley and more than a few of Ryan's girlfriend). For the complete throwaway nature of what Ryan intended, it's a more amusing read than the practiced mini-comics from other emerging talents, and while it makes a far better supplement than introduction to Ryan's work, it can be recommended.

Surfin'
Eric Reynolds
Brownfield Press

A burgeoning pen-and-ink illustration career and a full-time job as the George Stephanopolus of the Groth/Thompson administration leaves Eric Reynolds little time for comics. It should therefore be noted when one of his minis works its way up and through the skin for public display. Reynolds has always been a solid inker and a fair conceptual designer; working with Peter Bagge's pencils in Hate and on Suck.com has helped his linework to become less ragged and more elastic. Surfin' shows off Reynolds' development, working through its slight visual narrative by breaking down each graphic idea onto a beach-ready design face. The ideas are linked less by iconography or narrative than by energy -- until its final triumphant image, "Surfin'" builds towards several false climaxes before each time stepping back (or off to the side). Like the disposable act on which it reports, Reynolds has made a treasured little throwaway.

· The price on the cover of Angry Youth Comix #11 is $2. Johnny Ryan may be reached at PO Box 22277, Seattle WA 98122-0277, or via superjohnny69@hotmail.com

· Try wwww.topshelfcomics.com for a contact address through which to inquire about Doot Doot Garden. Their mailing address is PO Box 1282, Marietta, GA 30061

· Greg Cook's Hear Say has no price tag, but the book mentions this address -- 79 Riggs Street, Gloucester, MA 07930 -- and the www.highwaterbooks.com web site

· HM2K is a production of Big Red Hair, P.O. Box 14278, Portland, OR 97293-0278. They can be visited at www.bigredhair.com

· If you can find a price on Monster 2000, you're a better person than I am. Try 75 eagle street#1 Providence, RI 02909

· I got my copy of My Naked, Naked Friends by standing in front of Steve Lieber's table at a comics convention until he gave me something to go away. Try slieber@compuserve.com

· The price on the cover of Shouldn't You Be Working? #3 is $1. Johnny Ryan may be reached at PO Box 22277, Seattle WA 98122-0277, or via superjohnny69@hotmail.com

· Ordering info on SURFIN' is: send one dollar cash and a 33 cent postage stamp to Brownfield Press: P.O. Box 30044, Seattle, WA 98103.