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Home > Bart Beaty's Conversational Euro-Comics

Honey Talks, from StripBurger
posted March 22, 2006
 

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I will admit that I am a total sucker for boxes full of comics. Not those sad looking things on the floors at comic conventions containing old Valiant back issues, but the sharp looking objects assembled by really innovative publishers like BuLB. Whenever I see a box, rather than a book, of comics, I know that I have to pick it up.

I will also admit that I am a complete fool for comics anthologies that aren't just slapped together when an editor contacts a bunch of his friends, but take part in a larger purpose. Directionless anthologies seem limp to me, like a badly curated museum show. But give a bunch of artists common cause and ask them to come up with something, at least now we have something to talk about.

With these two caveats in place, I'd like to offer up my first nominee for best comic of the year. Honey Talks, an anthology from the Slovenian publisher StripBurger, is the most interesting anthology I've seen in quite some time. This is a box of nine comics booklets (plus an introductory essay) featuring some of the world's most interesting cartoonists, all offering their take on 19th century Slovenian folk art. It's pretty high concept, and it's really wonderful.

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According to the introductory essay, the Slovenian system for constructing beehives was to place multiple hives in stacks and then roof the whole structure in order to create a bee house. As the fronts of these hive boxes looked dull, it didn't take long until some people began to decorate them, creating illustrated panels of about 8 to 12 inches wide and 4 to 8 inches high (with a small hole in the bottom for the bees to enter and exit). Many of these boxes depicted religious themes, and many took on a sequential nature, with multiple panels depicted different moments in, for instance, the stations of the cross. Beehive panel comics in 19th century Slovenia!

Stripburger's editors point out that it took a visit from Pakito Bolino (of Le Dernier cri) to point out what they had overlooked -- the strong connection between these unusual image series and contemporary comics. The editors ran with Bolino's observation, inviting nine artists who were variously associated with the anthology in the past to take up the challenge of creating books based on the images. The resulting comics range in length from 24 to 40 pages. Each is the size and shape of a beehive panel, and each even includes the horizontal cut in the front cover that will allow the bees to come and go. This is a marvelously well-designed box set, and I would encourage anyone interested in cutting edge comics to pick it up simply as an object.

Which is not to say that the comics aren't worth reading as well, far from it. Anke Feuchtenberger's "The King of the Bees" is a lovely wordless tale about a woman who steals a beehive. Her pencil drawings are enchanting here, and the story, like so much of her work, is enigmatic. Rutu Modan, hot on the heels from a strong contribution to Cargo, returns with "The Hunter's Daughter", a fairy tale-like story about a hunter who thought that maybe the animals were his friends (they weren't). Danijel Zezelj's "Beton and Honey" is a quick, sad piece about graffiti. Zezelj's moodily evocative art is, as usual, highly emotionally charged. I have no idea why this artist is so criminally under-appreciated.

Two of the longer works in Honey Talks totally change the tone. "Sidetracked," by Jakob Klemencic, and "Grandma's Painting," by Matthias Lehmann, each tell extended narratives. While Feuchtenberger and Modan restrict themselves to a single image per page, Klemencic and Lehmann squeeze in a large number of panels, approaching the book as if it were a half-album page. The resulting narratives are long and complex, each relating tales of alienation. Klemencic's travel story is purgatorial, while Lehmann's art world anecdote is very down on the liberating possibilities of art.

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Three more essentially wordless stories take the opposite tack. Kocoos, a cartoonist with whom I was not previously familiar, gives us "The Goat", a simple anecdote about a goat who shits out anything he eats unchanged. "Wanted", by Vladan Nikolic, is a quasi-western featuring women riding roosters. Marcel Ruijter's "Alvearium" (Beehive) is another of his religiously-themed latin works -- while it has text, it's all in Latin. Each of these has its moments, but they are collectively probably the least interesting works in the book.

Maybe the most interesting is the final one. Milorad Krstic's "Pegam and Lambergar" is a modern updating of the mythical story of the Czech warrior Pegam who is defeated by the Carniolan knight Lambergar. I have been obsessed with Krstic's work since I first wrote about him in The Comics Journal after seeing his work in an early issue of Stripburger. That story was subsequently republished in Lapin, and then I never saw another comic by him. His biography indicates that he's being working in film, but I'd like him to come back to comics (or, I'd like to see the films!). He has an incredibly unusual style, using irony and dry humor coupled with semi-abstract imagery. I am smitten by this work, with its unusual figures and excessive emotional moments.

One final note. The thing that ties the whole project together, which really puts it over the top, is the back cover of each of the books. On the back of each contribution is a Slovenian beehive panel, often the panel that has inspired the look of the comic, or at the very least its theme. Thus, Modan's comic is revealed to be a near perfect elaboration of the single panel from 1864 reproduced on the back of the book, from tone to visual style. The same can be said for the contributions of Kocoos and Nikolic. These back covers are revelatory. Not only do they give us a clear sense of exactly how some of these panels, now collected by the Apicultural Museum in Radovlijca and the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana, but the best cast the work that we have just read in an entirely new light, allowing for a re-examination of the story in a whole new light.

Too few anthologies are put together with the intelligence of Honey Talks. It takes a work that is thoughtful, innovative and well-executed to rank among the best books of the year. Honey Talks is clearly leading the field.

*****

Modan, Feuchtenberger, Krstic
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