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Minimalism Archives #8—Classically Formatted Mini Comics
posted December 24, 2004

The Classic
Minimalism by Tom Spurgeon

The comics publishing business festers with unending chatter about format, a running argument on how best to meet the needs of a consumer both well-known and imagined, a free-ranging discussion that has accelerated ten-fold with the emergence of American translated manga as a bookstore staple. Should comics cost less to snare the casual customer? Should they cost more to allow for profitable racking on newsstands? Do magazine-sized comics place themselves at an insurmountable disadvantage? Is there a place for strangely sized books of the type that have become all the rage in alternative circles, or is their relative popularity merely a reflection of the tiny overall size of that market segment? Is black and white really a viable choice for comics, and if not, then what about limited color? The mind boggles; the civilian snoozes.

Mini-comics provides the reader safe ground from which to watch this back and forth in bemused safety. Despite the fact that their name might indicate a specific permutation in format, mini-comics lovingly embrace all sizes and presentational styles. In fact, a cartoonist eager for a review in a small press column will put up a convincing case that a comic formatted exactly like Action Comics yet from a different kind of cartoonist is really a mini-comic after all. Certainly excellent work can be find in books as tiny as Chris Ware's hand-made flip through tomes, about half the size of a thumb, or in efforts as large as some of the New England cartoonists' attempts to make use of industrial paper, a full 17 inches tall by 14 inches wide.

If there exists an ideal size for a mini-comic, this column would argue it's the quarter-sized book (indicating a quarter of a piece of typing paper rather than the size of a coin). This means each page takes on a five and ½ inch by four and ¼ inch shape. The result looks like a nice little volume, but somehow seems slightly fatter in proportion than a mass-manufacture comic book, like a handsome kid cousin on the brink of his teen years that still holds on to a little bit of his baby fat. It's not a difficult size to hold, carry or to read, but cartoonists have to be careful to communicate clearly, particularly on the covers. It is also increasingly rare, as cartoonists seem to favor odd sizes or the five and ½ inch by eight and ½ inch used by most of the story-driven crowd and all of the scissor-phobic. But for this column at least, the quarter-book is king, with the hope that by drawing attention to them there will be more.

Angels // Health Camp
Not Christopher Forgues

Well, you could have fooled me. Although Kramer's Ergot editor Sammy Harkham reports that the comic book in question isn't by Chris Forgues, the C.F. initials and dates that typically indicate an effort by that cartoonist are on the book's scrawled-art cover. Despite this confusion, there's a reasonably interesting mini-comic inside. "Angels" inverts animal and human survivalist notions in an obvious yet compelling manner, while "Health Camp" breaks down a simple action -- a man lifting a jug of liquid -- into its component motions. There's not much to it in terms of content, and not much style inherent in its execution, but the booklet form holds these two spare ideas pretty well. As long as the reader puts roughly the same effort into enjoying the book as the cartoonist did explicating each idea, no one should come away disappointed.

Asher Bear Makes a Pod
Sketchbook Party
Allison Cole

These are two books by Allison Cole that work to make a greater whole. Asher Bear Makes a Pod reads as if it were made as part of an attempt by the artist to produce a comic book on a regular basis -- and in fact, the final page declares as a motto "A Comic Once A Week." The mini features the kind of compressed storyline that comes out of an automatic writing exercise -- an artist declares their intention to make something, and plot complications arise as the artist changes their mind as to the object's intent and purpose. The plot works in its own thin way because the final permutation of the art project is funny in contrast to the grumpiness that preceded it.

Sketchbook Party proves more interesting, and works less as a showcase for drawing than as a window into the artist's attitudes surrounding her comics. The work is assembled from a number of sketchbooks, which are identified on their own new page, frequently by color of cover. The reader will probably share the artist's frustration with her inarticulate cartooning; she asks at one point, "Do I draw like a retard now?" Hilariously, one attempt to redraw a drunken tableau jotted down in person becomes much less interesting and effective when a modicum of skill should improve the insights greatly. But Cole's attempts to improve at her work become endearing over time, and the fascination/revulsion dichotomy with the art form on display will probably remind a lot of readers of themselves. Still, for this to be an interesting journal, it needed show off a few more captivating details. The best audience by far would be fellow artists, and perhaps only artists near this particular stage in their artistic development.

Catching the Moon
Our Pet Moon
Why I Like Bugs
Dan Moynihan

All three of these mini-comics are attractively drawn, but I think the like the earliest the best. In Catching the Moon, produced in 2001, Moynihan utilizes a children's storybook iconography of simplified shapes that either pop up from their backgrounds or are strong enough to work without one. It's a wonder that more people don't use this attractive way of drawing figures, so reminiscent of children's literature, as it's immediately recognizable and comfortable. Moynihan's colors are really vibrant, as well -- the dark blue suggests a nighttime scenario without wandering recklessly close to dreary or depressing. The mini's story is inconsequential but sweet, as a couple imagines catching the moon in a more fantastic manner but settles for bringing it down to them by capturing its image in a cup of liquid on their table.

Created last year, Our Pet Moon features the moment of discovery from the earlier mini-comics unpacked; the characters even look the same. It's presented as a black and white story -- at least until the last page -- although the shading makes it similar in visual heft to the previous work. As Moynihan's light narrative revolves around a more explicative treatment of how to take care of a moon image on water, it loses the charm that comes with gentle surprise. There is also language added to this comic that wasn't there before, words that while consistent in tone with the drawing add very little in terms of overall effect.

The line painted cover to Why I Like Bugs soaks the cardstock paper in cuteness. The feel of paint raised off of the surface gives the whole project a kind of handmade journal feel, like something a couple of precocious kids might put together to show Grandma. Here the language is used to better effect than Our Pet Moon, in a kind of children's primer monologue about the virtues of the creatures in question. There is even some funny dialogue at the end where Moynihan is taken to task for his sloppy terminology. Moynihan displays a lighter touch with the art as well, using his shading more sparingly, throwing the spotlight to his figures in a completely different way than in the other two mini-comics. The cartoonist obviously has a voice. That voice needs to be strengthened, refined, and hopefully put to task on more ambitious projects. Moynihan may be one to watch, but part of the appeal may be that he could stall out at any moment.

Hamachi Girl
Thien! Pham

This is a slice of life comic done in July of 2002, featuring the musings of a sushi chef about his life and his small but loyal customer base. The cartoonist depicts the narrator in almost cipher-like visual terms, and the patrons of his sushi bar only slight more differentiated. We learn more about the chef from his musings on how he got to where he is -- a broken heart and an escape to Japan that turns into several years abroad -- and the kindness with which he describes his regular clientele. The "Hamachi Girl" of the title turns out to be the chef's favorite customer, an attractive girl with whom he shares a comfortable, mostly silent and undeniably fulfilling weekly business relationship and the only one of his customers he sees out of the restaurant, if only from a distance. When the narrator says "On Thursdays I see her but I never do anything," it's hard to tell if he's disappointed or comforted by the fact.

Nothing about the way the story is presented will astonish anyone who's read a fair share of recent comics work. This is particularly true of the art, which at times lapses into a simplicity that distracts with its crudity rather than communicates universal truths. Still, the contrast revealed at story's end turns out to be surprisingly affecting, the endless variations of sushi preparation set against the dull routines of everyday living, wrapped in a sadness that prefers the former but needs the latter. If the writing had been sharper, and the details of the lives involved were depicted with any sort of clarity and uniqueness, this would be a really nice little book. As it is, the name is worth filing away with other cartoonists whose work could use the increased facility that stands of chance of developing over time.

Hamster Man #10-12
Paul Koob

Cartoonist Paul Koob has discovered a delivery system that really works with his series Hamster Man. The covers are simple and effective. Koob features simple black and white figure drawings increased in size to fit on the cover, with a color logo drawing further attention to it. The awkwardness of the figures may be the comics' most appealing feature -- the protagonist's spindly legs, the arbitrary size of characters like Toothy, and the incongruous drawing style used to depict a recurring Tiger character. Characters become villains of stories based mostly on how horribly painful their basic design seems. Koob's stories seem to draw humor out of their laconic pacing and the physical inability of the characters to play their assigned roles effectively instead of standard jokes and one-liners (of which there remain plenty). This makes the whole minimalist enterprise its own source of humor, the non-adventures of non-beings, fussy and fitful, as likely to end abruptly and in a dramatically unsatisfying manner as finish with a bang. The dumber and more ridiculous the set-up, the more Koob seems to be able to draw something silly and worthwhile from it, and the lead story in #12 scan much more effectively than the two before it.

Long Tail Kitty
Long Tail Kitty: Heaven
Long Tail Kitty: Outer Space
Lark Pien

Of these three mini-comics by Lark Pien, the most appealing read is the most simply titled. Long Tail Kitty is a series of one-panel-per-page rhapsodies over things that bring the title character joy. It's a nice workout for the very arch drawing style employed, a mixture of angles on characters and well-employed white space. The work could stand to get much lovelier but passes muster as a recognizable visual language, albeit one with some obvious enthusiasms fueling it. The two stories are tougher going, but show Pien has a flair for character design. Long Tail Kitty: Heaven features a really touching moment effectively played out, when one of the title character's nine lives returns to earth and says a warm goodbye from the other side. It is a sweetly staged little scene that nearly made me forget the hassles in trying to parse out what had happened, as in the fact I couldn't tell the sex of the human character that provides the impetus for the kitty spirit's journey. This is reasonably charming material, but holds my interest more as a measure of the cartoonist's progress than as books in their own right.

Maggots Book Two: Doggy Paddler
Brian Chippendale

Brian Chippendale did huge portions of his forthcoming Maggots book in the quarter-sized format. Although they're difficult to impossible to find now, he makes great use of the specific format. The covers in particular are stupendous. On the front of Doggy Paddler, a contorted body actually feels like a unique physical presence while boldly screened colors leads the eye to a ridiculous object of veneration. While the best way to read Chippendale is in the original journals, and the Highwater collection will have so many comics contained within its covers that the experience should be uniquely interesting, the mini-comics are lovely little objects unto themselves. As in all of Chippendale's work, figures run, surge in and out of focus, and interact with each other in furtive and desperate ways. The cartoonist's unique take on narrative rhythm is so involving that when he breaks the patter for a larger panel or simply adds in an extra graphic element the effect is startling, like a movie theater where the visuals temporarily bleed onto the walls. If all mini-comics were this good, no one would ever leave the house except to buy more.

Magic Bros
Ben Jones

This is a typically nice little package from Jones, who may be the mini-comics and small anthology artist other artists pay are reading more than any other at this moment. The cover design is extremely eye-catching, with colors that sift their way to the surface in a way that contrasts sharply against the expectations of commercial comic design. Jones presents two comics within, although rather than ending the story on opposite pages or putting a feature or pin-up in between the features, Jones simply has one story melt into the other. Jones has built a visual vocabulary so uniquely his own that his comics can be impenetrable on the first try -- despite the appealing, rounded shapes of his figure drawing. In the better of the two stories, a man engages in dialogue with multiple tiny jets that cluster around his head like so many swarming insects. Jones uses the classic quarter-format bravely, not seeming to care if his work is more or less accessible at this size, forcing the reader to slow down and pay attention. One might wish he had more to say, but the method of communication is extremely admirable.

Over 5 of Wrestling's Greatest Stars!

As far as I can tell, professional wrestling is a lot like the mainstream comic book industry except that the people involved were usually physically traumatized instead of emotionally traumatized as children and they perform their own super-heroics. This is a small mini-comic someone piggybacked onto a larger submission that became separated, and is simply a series of wrestling publicity photos strung together against a garish pink background. It's funny if you can get one for free or for every cheap. The best pictures are of a masked wrestler in a sombrero and what looks to be a young but still overweight Dusty Rhodes applying a completely painless arm-lock to a screaming, bearded man. Something tells me these photos look as weird to comic book readers as an unearthed Amazing Heroes swimsuit issue might look to a wrestling fan.

Shogun Warriors Coloring Book Starring Raydeen in "Outer Space Zoo"

This popped up in the Minimalism files from who knows where, but it looks like one of the more directly reformatted comics that the column receives from time to time. Many of these are design or nostalgia oriented, such as the reprinting of several out-of-sight Golden Age comics. Taking an existing product and presenting it as a new item very often plays up some strange or striking aspect that would have been taken for granted on the first go-round. In terms of this article, such projects are sometimes more helpful in determining the effect of a specific format. With "Outer Space Zoo," the quarter-page format takes the emphasis away from individual pieces of art and places it onto the story, and an amusing subplot of how pliable and ingratiating Raydeen the robot seems in his attempts to work his way into the narrator-kids' lives that might have been lost on a crayon-slinger now stand in hilarious relief.

The comic really doesn't interest me now except to note that it would have infuriated the very serious pulp sensibilities I sported at age eight. I have no idea what to call the specific narrative effect, but I distinctly remember the subversion of serious action icons into co-conspirators for children as something that used to set me off once upon a time. It makes me laugh now, and the sight here of robot butt-kicker Raydeen climbing a tree may stay with me forever. The book also offers several funny drawings of mixed-animal types, although only a few of those drawings look less than confusing to try and color.