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Minimalism Archives #9—Mico-Minis
posted December 24, 2004

Minimalism #9
It's Small Good
Minimalism by Tom Spurgeon

Classic mini-comics are one thing, but there's something special about a really, really tiny booklet, the kind you can hold in one hand and that challenges your thumbs in flipping the pages. With the micro book coming into vogue, it's the really miniscule mini-comics that look and feel like something completely different than a professionally printed magazine. Better yet, the format forces special considerations onto the artists making use of it. Tiny formats often compel the artist to work more clearly than usual and pay stricter attention to the quality of the interior copies. Many cartoonists use tinier comics to bust out the inner art director, making dollhouse-like comics with full-size fancy presentation around interiors of intricate beauty. Others utilize the smallest comics as a home for goofier projects, the sidelines and the one-offs, while yet another group seems to think that small events warrant smaller books, making this a likely format for diary-style efforts.

I like them all, and here are approximately two-dozen books of this type sent to this column since Fall 2002.

4 Weeks 4 Comics
Flower of Death
Modern Rock
Sketchbook of Frustration
Allison Cole

Allison Cole's comics work best where she utilizes her strange visual shorthand to delineate stories of worried tedium. In A Sketchbook of Frustration, Cole starts by expressing her doubts that her chosen subject matter is even worth inflicting on other people, via a lengthy disclaimer. She's right in that this kind of thing can be death, and certainly no one will hold up this thick little mini-comic as a watershed event. But the thoroughness with which Cole goes over and over and over an issue like this one gives the comic its best moments. And often Cole is wrong about wearing out her welcome just as she's wrong about other events in her books -- in the ending to Modern Rock, where she simply relates what each person drew at a drawing session, Cole claims her ending to be lame when it actually works quite well within the parameters she's set up.

I read somewhere recently that Cole studied screenprinting at Rhode Island School of Design, and via that training a lot of her work is screened. This is used to good effect in her 4 Week 4 Comics package, which features a nice little cover box, cleverly assembled. The comic Tripod Terror shows Cole stretching a bit in its depiction of a physically charged confrontation. But the best comic in the bunch is From Russia With Love, where Cole simply recounts a boring day in class spent passing notes between friends. It helps that Cole lets the reader see the notes, and that the notes themselves -- featuring various nonsense riffs on Josef Stalin -- are often funny. The fable-like comics are the only ones here that seem like total dead ends -- nothing about Cole's visual iconography or sense of comics fundamentals makes the telling of these stories interesting in any way. But when the two views of reality collide, Cole's work charms for pages at a time.

15 Monsters
Jack Davis

According to the indicia, the great MAD cartoonist and highly successful commercial artist Jack Davis drew these pictures in 1964 for an outfit called Radio Corporation of America. I have no idea who that is, nor what publishing outfit they may have owned -- is it RCA? But the monster art seems perfectly in line with America's classic scary creatures obsession from 1960-1975 -- no doubt partly fueled by the obsession with 1930s entertainment that was prevalent during that time. These are lovely little portraits, mostly classic creatures with a couple of hipper variations thrown in: there's a Roth-style hot-rod monster, and a werewolf is dressed in Michael Landon letterman jacket mode with the designation "Honda Monster." Davis' Fay Wray is about 17 feet tall, but in every other case exaggeration is used to superb effect. The drawings are all pen-and-ink, with lots and lots of hatching, striking a nice balance between cartoon liveliness and illustrated creepiness. My favorites are the classic, leering Mr. Hyde and a dopey-looking "Surf Monster." The construction is nice, too, with a piece of clothing material used for the cover. It is definitely worth picking up.

1972 Topps
Greg Vondruska

This is a short story instead of a comic. As many sketchbooks as there are out there in terms of non-comics minis, it's surprising how few prose minis are sold alongside the comic book kind. There's something profound to be said about that, I'm sure. The cover here is worth noting, a color version of a perfunctory pen and ink drawing inside that works well as an inducement to pick the book up despite the reduced size. Vondruska knows that a simple image effectively displayed works best at this size. It's a lesson he fails to carry over into the short story itself. Vondruska's tale is jammed with too many asserted readings of too few events, told in a minimalist style that for all that's hinted at the edges feels like cheating. Still, it's nice to see a cartoonist stretch with their writing for once, and then put it out for public consumption, and it's clear that these are story moments that hold interest for the cartoonist. I would not be surprised were Vondruska to cannibalize different portions of this story for use in future work.

… And That's You, Dear! Only You!
Suzanne Baumann

Baumann uses the tiny mini format for an admirable purpose, as a free inducement into seeking out more of her work. And That's You Dear! Only You! is an illustrated piece of verse written in "old-timey" style, with a first fifth of the 20th century look to the art and people depicted as well. It's a nice piece of fluff, particularly the expressions on the characters' face. While the paramour looks angry throughout the piece and the object of his affection carries a blank and mysterious look, in the last panel the faces change. This gives the little rhyme a level of uncertainty -- is the girl depicted angry and resentful of the attention, or is she merely showing the same level of general misanthropy that the protagonist himself displayed in the initial pages? Due to the heartbreaking symbol above his prone body, I'd guess the former. But still, although no victory for the art form this is a fun and inoffensive little comic, and certainly worth picking up for its own self at any show or through the cartoonist herself.

Comixville #5-6
The Comixville Collective

I've received two issues of the self-proclaimed "Quick, Little Guide to Self-Published Comics," put together by a group based out of Portland, Oregon. It may prove to be of great interest to those of you who want another source for potential mini-comics finds than this irregular column and Optical Sloth. If nothing else, Comixville is a necessary idea well executed. The standard page has ordering information and a brief description, plus a crucially valuable reproduction of some art. More comics are talked about in digest form in the last few pages, sans art, and the first few pages are given over to an interview/profile. This is a strong format, and while the usefulness of this volume will depend greatly on how much the writing can be trusted, and how consistently accurate the information is, there are certainly cartoonists in here I have yet to discover.

Cyanoacrylate Toys Brings You Jack
John Pham

Pham's latest is a toy kit, where if you follow the instructions you can build a scale model of one of the characters from John Pham's Epoxy series, Jack from the serial "Elephantine." But it does contain comics, and material for those interested in comics. The box itself features some nicely printed artwork, and can be unfolded for use as diorama background when the assembled figure is finally painted. The instructions are told in a mix of comics, art, and written instructions. It turns out there is a small folded-over mini-comic at the bottom of the box as well. The book reads as a single page and also as a series of six five-panel comic strips, concerning an incredibly unsuccessful train wreck of a romantic fling attempted by the character on which your new toy is based. If you haven't guessed by now, the whole thing screams "I love you Chris Ware" like a romantic drunk standing in an alleyway beneath Ware's window, but the cartooning is skilled enough and the project fun to the extent this doesn't annoy. Pham's iconography and core influences are so different than Ware's that this should make a big difference in the long run, and right now allows the reader to forgive his momentary fascination.

The Dweam of the Wabbit Fiend
Devlin Thompson

Thompson gets points for super-clever presentation. In a envelope marked with the title in McCay-like lettering, the reader gets a fake tear-sheet from a newspaper page that features the comic strip. The comic is cute, too -- Thompson points out the nightmarish illogic with which Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck go after antagonists like Elmer Fudd. It's easy to project the basic physicality of the cartoons into a goof on philosophical issues, for instance the hunter's ability to emphasize with the hunted and the role switching that takes place in the standard short. The execution is fine but not remarkable (I like it when Elmer exclaims "Oh!"), but this is certainly an approach that could lead to multiple, similar projects that might gain something in a fuller context.

Eightballs Comics Starring Rebecca and Enid
Ophelia Cummins

I read once there exist multiple versions of Ghost World Tijuana Bible-type porno comics -- kind of designer titles, really, from fans to other fans -- which may say more about the perceived tastes of alt-comix fans than it does Ghost World's saturation into public consciousness. This little book doesn't count as one of those, I don't think, as it's more a goof on that idea rather than anything that could possibly be taken as a use of the characters in a pornographic context. In Eightballs, the girls that Dan Clowes has hired as the models for his characters complain about the cartoonist and have sex with each other in a series of third-grade-level rough drawings. The best panel -- okay, the only good panel -- is when Paul Pope inexplicably shows up with an offer of clove cigarettes. Nothing else comes close to being that daffy and therefore amusing, and in fact the rest of what's going on in that specific panel makes me half-cringe, too. I can't tell if this is someone who can do better work goofing around or someone that can't work at all goofing around, and I suppose it doesn't matter. I like the one-staple format a lot, though.

I Can't Believe They Want $20 for These Crappy Mini-Comics by Jerks!

This is a pretty unique package, and will probably appeal to many readers simply for the people involved: Mary Burt, Carl Greenblatt, Sam Henderson, Walt Holcombe, Marco Jimenez, Tom King, Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee, Tim Maloney, Jeanette Moreno, Jenny Nixon, Aaron Rozenfeld, and Johnny Ryan. The product they've put together is like a giant collection of cocktail napkin drawings transposed onto crudely assembled mini-comics of the tiny variety, wrapped in a big piece of color paper. It's all gags all the time, and because most of the books seems handed to the next person indiscriminately, the sight of everything screeching to a halt for a digression into what is usually something very rude begins to take on a humorous momentum of its own. This is probably a must-have for fans of the above, unassailably so, and while you may never look through the books more than once you're left with the impression that these would have been good people with whom to pass the time at the back of study hall. The title is eerily apt, too -- one's unsettled reaction to a price point as art.

Illustrated Comic Booklets

This is an envelope full of straight-up porno, in time-honored Tijuana Bibles fashion. There are six booklets here: Captain Easy, Maggie and Jiggs, Katherine Hepburn, Tekeela, and Toots and Casper. The plots generally involve restless, horny women and grateful men sporting oversized genitalia. This makes them sex positive in the way they depict carnality as a two-way street, while also displaying a keen understanding of the probable non-confrontational mindset of someone picking up these books for thrills. The cartoon characters scan more effectively than the show business personalities (Hepburn, anyway), probably because it takes less skill to approximate the visually sound and extremely familiar comic strip designs. I like the art direction -- a small envelope with a sticker for a cover (claiming to be from "Bibloteca No-Mo in Tia Juana, Mexico"), a stamped price, and single-staple minis on paper so cheap it's like rough cloth -- although there's no reason to think it's directed. I'm guessing this is a modern re-packaging of some really old material, but it could be an evocation of this kind of work, too. Who knows? It's worth the six bucks only if you're a fan of porn, or, perhaps, Toots and Casper, whoever they are.

Lester Beall: American Designer
The Marx Family
Chris Pitzer

I love the physical appearance of both of these works. The Marx Family is a notebook-bound flip book with color photos, while Lester Beall features hard covers bound over a little booklet with endpapers, also in beautifully reproduced color. These are effective objects, and up to the standards one might expect from an arts comic publisher. Of the two books, Lester Beall: American Designer is far more interesting and gives its readers a much more ingenious use of comics, threading a quote from the designer through a series of his graphic designs. This combines commentary with presentation, and forces a kind of puzzling-out of both statement and the design elements presented -- the basic language of comics used for its ability to make a point more obtuse rather than seamless. The Marx Family offers pretty standard stock-American satire in the form of sculpted figures in a dollhouse acting out in slightly scandalous ways. The only things that lingers thirty seconds after putting the book down are a fine comedic use of an Eddie Murphy pop song and some curiosity over whether Pitzer found a sculpture that sits on a toilet or made one himself. It would be great if the design ideas in both of these books found future expression, and the books are well worth a look for anyone whose interests move in that direction.

Mime Compliant 6: Have Not
Mime Compliant 7: Work
Mime Compliant 8: The Bug
Mime Compliant 10: Innovation
Mime Compliant 11: Read
Jesse Reklaw

Jesse Reklaw's comics are sterling minis working out of the pantomime school right down to the O. Henry-style endings many of them feature. They work as near-perfect examples of the mini-comic format, although if the reader is completely honest it's the diminished expectations that come with this kind of booklet that helps this work along immensely. In other words, I'm not sure how these stories would play as chapters in a full-sized comic or an elaborately packaged hardback. Reklaw's work is generally well crafted, but his art doesn't wow like Thomas Ott's, or evoke that cartoonist's relentless noir-style investigation into the darker sides of human behavior and depictions of those events in various media. Reklaw's books are more like arch commentaries from a flippant outsider.

But these are fun little commentaries. It's extremely entertaining to see Reklaw move back and forth between styles and tones. The best-looking work is Innovation, with its quirkily conceived characters and gray tones bleeding into the borders. The really loose pen work displayed in The Bug is also quite appealing. None of the stories jump out and throttle the reader, but the story in Read gains the most from Reklaw's assured sense of pacing and the look he gives the protagonist. These could easily enter anyone's permanent mini-comics collection -- these are solid comics that hold up on a second or third time through.

Product Brainstorming

This isn't a comic at all, unless you decide to include the spatial placement of words or phrase on the pages as comics -- which I might… when I'm drunk. I'm including it here because it seems to be from one of the Paper Rodeo gang, and it features obsessive list making in the service of marketing products. Who doesn't like marketing notes? In big cities companies paid to present things to the public will often gather together groups of creative folks all of whom could use the extra couple hundred dollars and have them name things. It's like the really depressing version of a high school problem-solving contest. This mini reminds me of that weird permutation of our hyper-capitalist culture, even though it might be about something else entirely. Some of the lists include a few high-concept funnies, too: "skyscrapers that actually scrape the sky," "a gun that looks like one of those pink flamingos you put in your front lawn," and "Dracula spatula" among them.