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Syncopated Vol. 3
posted May 22, 2007
 

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Creators: Various
Publishing Information: Syncopated Comics, softcover, 104 pages, $15
Ordering Numbers:

I wanted to write an early review of Syncopated Comics Vol. 3 for a pair of reasons. The first is that the initial two volumes were more rumor than comic shop shelf presence in a lot of circles. If you didn't go to the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art's summer festival and look carefully at all the tables, you may have missed out on seeing them at all. As this new issue appears in this month's issue of the Direct Market catalog Previews, maybe a mention here and there will put it in the minds of potential retailers and consumers. The second reason I wanted to write about Syncopated Vol. 3 is that I liked this issue much more than the first two, and I think it's close to becoming a year-in, year-out consistent performer.

Editor Brendan Burford -- the new comics editor at King Features -- explains the book's title by suggesting that this group of comics, by focusing on first-person journalism and reportage, is similar to music that stresses "the weak beat." In other words, it's an anthology that defines itself against the direction of the market generally, and I think comics anthologies as well. Knowing there's a specific type of stories being presented, and I'm not sure I did before, changes the way you evaluate the works. This has both fortunate and unfortunate outcomes. Tom Devlin's three pages of doodle comics might fit into a general anthology but seem woefully out of place here. Text pieces that might seem indulgent if they were to work their way into something like MOME reinforce the theme and certainly seem like fellow travelers to the comics stories themselves.

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The comics are a mixed bag, although the work is generally accomplished by the standards of art comics. The two best stories in the book embrace vastly different artistic approaches. Greg Cook's figures in "My Dorchester Neighbors" look almost like puppetry, inky shapes with distinct outer edges of the kind that are employed against a wall or even against a light source. The way Cook rattles off the fate of a few soldiers that live in the veteran cartoonist's home area in terms of their hopes for vocational success when war gets in the way proves unexpectedly affecting, providing emphasis without becoming maudlin about the interruption that each soldier's trip to Iraq represents. Paul Hoppe's "The Williamsburg/Greenpoint Waterfront Discussion" is unpacked in a series of one-panel-per-page comics, drawings accompanied by writing more than a blended, traditional comics effect. Hoppe's vistas are well-selected, and the series of empty buildings will remind folks of any time they drove or walked past empty or little-used buildings whose size and scope are echoes of an age long gone.

I don't doubt that Burford can keep his narrow focus and decline to use those comics that don't quite fit in. He may even tighten it -- it really does seem like there's a New York version of this same approach that could carry an issue. One reason he can maintain such tight control without losing vitality is that his anthology retains a central tension that he himself indicates in his description: comics with a narrator talking about an issue or story where they are the gateway for the reader (Burford's own comics, like "The Seaport") and comics that are straight re-tellings of an event (Jim Campbell's "TR and the Thieves"). It's eye-opening how clear that simple distinction becomes as you read the stories. Some in both camp are weaker than the others -- my least favorite were comics by Dave Kiersh and John Martz -- but none of them stick out as throwaway material, which in an anthology featuring young cartoonists may be the greatest achievement of them all. This is a solid book, that even if it doesn't develop that one must-see feature that usually brings attention to a group effort stands a chance of staying coherent and increasingly evocative by way of general consistency.