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Minimalism Archives #7—SD and Mocca Minis
posted December 24, 2004

Mocca, San Diego and More
By Tom Spurgeon

These are my summer comics. Artists pressed many of the following directly into my hands during the 2003 summer convention season, while others arrived in the mail, or popped out of hiding during a summer cleaning. With Internet retail allowing many that live in smaller towns to find all of their big company needs year-round without having to attend a show, mini-comics distributed in person have become a much hotter on-site commodity, and many attendees walk away with dozens after a major event, some old and others sparkling new, some which will be devoured immediately and other scattered about to surprise the reader when discovered later on. The barter system and face-to-face commerce are appropriate exchange media for this precious and in some ways outdated art form, while the tiniest treasures always seem to slip away and between the cracks. I have now lost as many of the comics I brought home this summer as I have uncovered here, and look forward to future unearthings.

A Ape
Ahoy There!
Cloud Picnic
Dork Lifestyle
Lost Dog
Puffy White Clouds
Refreshing Times Flow Gently
Sunshine Factory
This is Your Toy and I Want It
Where's a Cookie?
Missy Kulik

My favorite thing about this batch of titles is that it came with a gigantic order form. Labeled "Starting Small," it offers for sale at various modest prices12 'zines, 13 minis, 17 "other 'zines," four t-shirts, two pairs of undies, two patches, four notepads, three badges, two charms, magnets, candy soap, eight CDs and two recordings on vinyl. The industry on display is as affecting as any of the comics, which lean towards very, very minimalist and child-voice storytelling with a couple of diary-style reportage efforts thrown in to break the monotony. The best ones in the batch are "Cloud Picnic" and "A Ape," as both feature clever and appealing designs. The ape is particularly attractive. Kulik's comics play up the romanticized version of nature as a repository of toddler-style goofiness with the straight face that is more commonly seen smirking in similar works offered up by alternative cartoonists. The drawing is guileless to match. A little of this kind of thing goes a very long way for most people, I think, but Kulik seems incapable of offering anything more than a little at a time.

Field Trip
Souther Salazar

If out of boredom one were to draw connections between the current cream of the mini-comics crop and those in the same position ten years ago, Souther Salazar would be best compared to Tom Hart. What Hart was to simplified narrative mini-comics that reminded one of the best confessional 'zine work of that period, Salazar is to art-driven documentary comics that put one in the mind of the better efforts from the recent spate of bittersweet memoirs. Once the reader understands that these are first person accounts, in this case a trip to a Long Beach aquarium, it's easy to settle into Salazar's behind-the-pen perspective and assemble the meaning from the various things encountered and then drawn along the way. Also, like Hart, Salazar's mini-comics are fiercely romantic and work from variations of a specific approach to language on the page. Most importantly you end wanting to collect them all, and talk about the new ones as if you're discovering the artist for the very first time.

Florence of Arabia
An Inside Job

These are two comics produced in 2001 by Eli Bishop, aka "Hob," the cartoonist responsible for one of the few highlights in the wildly uneven small press anthology Bogus Dead. Florence of Arabia is a dream-like adventure comic loaded with portentous meanings and eerie plot twists, while An Inside Job contains dream comics proper with one long nighttime reverie about a crime that reads much like the Florence story minus the framing sequences. None of Bishop's little tales remain in one's memory ten seconds after reading them, but the quality of the cartooning seems interesting. The artist Bishop will remind most of is David Lasky -- both use figures that seem to spring from fertile ground that exists somewhere between European albums, Beatles animation and the more fluid figure work of the New Yorker-style cartoonists, and both use that limber quality to good effect in crafting well-paced narratives. It's fun to delve into Bishop's worlds, and these mini-comics are also handsomely apportioned. But the stories are so slight it's sort of like watching a talented ballplayer settle into a comfortable groove at the minor leagues; the skill level on display offers some pleasure, but one wishes there were something more at stake. These remain nice little discoveries, but might work best if they came on the heels of a more ambitious project or two to which these served as clever harbingers of what was to come.

Alternative Comics, 1891867423, $12.95

This is a proper trade volume from Jeff Mason's Alternative Comics, the appearance of which makes perfect sense given the publisher's relationship with anthology standout Graham Annable. The comics within are assembled from various offerings that appeared in the attractive mini-comics series of the same name, something this column intended to review but let slip quietly out of the schedule before getting around to it. Nothing about Mason's presentation of the work changes its context to the extent that the comics of Hickee lose their ragged, self-published feeling -- so I'll sneak a mention in here.

Unlike the stories appearing some of the more ponderous anthologies in recent years, the works in Hickee are short and playfully drawn. Contrasting itself with most mini-comics collections from different artists, the book's content displays a generally high level of artistic craft across the board. There are still distinctions that can be made. Annable's admirably simple and elegant drawing serves him well here; his is the best suite of comics in the volume. By dropping pictorial details in favor of narratives that can be built from multiple panels, Annable provides as much pleasure from his steady pacing as from his stories' punch lines. Joe White and Nathan Stapley work in similar styles. White draws fussier characters that fitfully react to each other on the page. Stapley's comics move more steadily between panels with an angular style that gives his work a visual edge by slowing the reader's eye. Another standout is Scott Campbell's "Pleasantries Between Monsters," which features a unique page design and derives much of its energy from the conflict between outlandishly drawn creatures and excruciating, empty-headed bickering -- a staple of post-alternative humor. Mason's anthology is an able sampler of several talented and previously unknown artists, and stands up reasonably well as a straight-out humor book.

Last Cry for Help #3

While the rest of the alternative comics community in attendance was out exploring the 4:00 AM shut-off times in Gotham City bars, several cartoonists decided to stay in for at least part of the evening and make new work. The third issue of Last Cry for Help was xeroxed on June 21, 2003, the weekend of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art festival, and it's the usual free-for-all doozy. Contributing artists are listed as Saelee Oh, Dave Kiersh, Dan Moynihan, David Heatley, Ron Rege Jr., Todd Webb, Rachell Sumpter, and Daria Tessler. The stars are Kiersh and Salazar, but the vast majority of the book is drawn in very lovely fashion, sumptuous tableaux interspersed with delicately drawn gag strips, like the last-day-of-school project of the most precious homeroom class in the history of the world. Most of the work dances along the line of disposable and keep-it-forever; if you close your eyes, it's to easy to imagine that all mini-comics should burst with at least this much energy. A quality anthology raises one's estimation of artists involved, even those not particularly cherished before. This ends up being a pretty good anthology, although it's not the place you'd go for narrative and it's not the place you'd wish to visit for twice the number of pages.

Meow Baby

Jason's 2003 convention mini contains a selection of very short, very funny comics. Put into the service of humor, the cartoonist's distinct art style becomes less about a consistent milieu and more about awkward figures pressed into sketch comedy, like a talented cast of a TV variety show with a hyperactive costuming department. The comic may remind the reader of vaudeville -- blank backdrops and quick blackouts, and world that's willing to bend itself for the joke -- or some of the early comic strips which drew on that same sense of humor. You have to be a really solid cartoonist to make this kind of material work, if only because there is nothing in which to become immersed besides the joke. Every gag but one unfolds beautifully. Jason finds humor in presenting an amusing situation and then revealing a small detail that thrusts the reader into an acerbic punchline. In one short, two monsters exchange cordial pleasantries and then break it off suddenly and subtly to begin running. Jason then shows the two angry mobs -- one with torches, one with stakes -- continue pursuit past one another in Keystone Cops fashion. There will one day soon, no doubt, be a whole a book of these strips and others like them, but the mini-comic is worth picking up in the meantime for the smiles it brings.

Moxie #1

This is a mini-comics anthology put together by a group of Seattle cartoonists called "Fine Comix," that was available from Davey Oil's table at the MoCCA festival in June 2003. According to a sort-of mission statement on the back inside cover, the good folks at Fine Comix "collaborate on thoughts that help push the comics medium as an artform," one would guess through a strategy that incorporates "formulas to re-examined the panel-to-panel nature of comics so that they can be lifted from the pages and presented as street art, and in performances, in film and in animation and in gallery show spaces." Moxie looks to be this group's house organ, the repository of comics they make along the way, either at meetings or in the process of one of their group efforts. Save for a nice example of Dave Lasky's current fascination with single drawings dissected by multiple panels, and a formally playful comic from Elijah Brubaker to kick things off, Moxie hardly seems like a radically experimental anthology. But there's some okay work here from Lasky, Brubaker and Scott Faulkner, as well as some comic stories that fail to distinguish themselves but are still reasonably pleasant to read, like the offerings from Tatiana Gill and M. Campos. This is a perfect use of the mini-comics format as a way to downgrade expectations and keep a record without investing in a formal publishing plan. Although I'm afraid this eminently sensible strategy doesn't make Moxie a necessary buy.

The Pitch
Mark Burrier

This is a charming, well-drawn and nicely packaged mini-comic about the art of the hard sell at small press conventions. It was made in February of this year, according to a note in the comic itself, and I found out in my bookshelf while cleaning out my Fort Thunder collection. In the comic the narrator -- whom one would guess is Burrier -- stumbles through conversations with people who stand in front of his table at a show and either look at his comic or speak to him directly. The potential customers aptly compare Burrier to other cartoonists (Seth, Greg Cook, Jordan Crane), note the book's quality design, and basically find ways to politely avoid buying a copy. The longer the conversation, the more pained or obtuse it seems. Burrier's drawing at story's end, the author in his chair fading into a field muttering another half-defense of his work, cleverly depicts the loneliness one can feel in a room full of strangers when your work stands between them and you. All in all, this is a very nice and very thin slice of life comic worth checking out and Burrier seems a cartoonist worth coming back to.

Reinventing Everything
James Kochalka

This summer's mini-comics handout from one of the form's most renowned practitioners, Reinventing Everything proves itself noteworthy for its assured pacing, injection of narrative complexity back into the artist's work, and a coda which both mirrors and subverts the reader's probable reaction. Kochalka uses the emotional and intellectual investment many feel while playing video games as a starting point to muse over meaning and significance in a world where one might have a hard time discerning the differences between the natural world and the complex codes of the virtual. Particularly effective are a few silent sequences and depictions that match up with narration only if one has invested the time to muse over Kochalka's speech. Much less powerful is the adoption of video game effects to distort imagery. Overall, an interesting short essay that gets more style points than awards for content, presented in one of the forms that flatters its artist most.

Joven Kerashtest

This is a book of appealingly drawn short stories from an artist who may be best known to fans of the alternative comics anthology. The presentation is slick and lovely, reminiscent of the kinds of mini-comics that come from high-end animators doing panel-to-panel work in their spare time, or formal publishing companies slumming. The stories tend to end in obtuse jokes, or traffic throughout in obvious, bouncy satire, but it's the art that makes the book worth perusing. Kerashtest draws in several permutations of an attractive style, and his best work distorts the human figure with affecting zeal in service of extremes played against one another for comedy. None of the work indicates that a full-length comic would offer much more in terms of depth of feeling, but the visual style has been developed to a point the artist should be a welcome addition to various group efforts for many a year to come.

Snow Monkeys
Megan Whitmarsh
One Ton Press

Several readers of this column recommended this cartoonist and this specific mini-comic to me, so I was happy to find one sitting at the bottom of my gym bag during a trip to Pasadena, California -- despite its incredible for this column age (1998). At this point, at least, Whitmarsh neither drew well enough nor wrote well enough to hold any adult reader's interest for more than a few pages at a time, if at all. But there are interesting effects that are brought about by the artist's choice of approach and tone. The leads are a pair of cold-weather monkeys, simply drawn, in a way that allows the reader to see them as fish out of water (they live in the tropics, and miss the snowy climate) and as largely infantile beings of the kind that many become in the middle of a well-insulated relationship. Whitmarsh also displayed some skill here blending realistically observed tedium with a fanciful sense of self and place, and the result is often interesting without being showy or overly precious. For instance, I really like the phrase, "Heisler's Golfland and Dairy Bar," and hope it's an original.

Greg Cook

Another oldie. This is a 1999 mini-comic that still enjoys wide circulation; I picked up my copy the summer four years after its publication in a show-floor trade with an industry pal. Cook presents a relatively simple story here. A female hippo floats out to an island where she enjoys a romantic encounter with a leopard of her acquaintance. The art isn't as effectively energetic as some of the better sequences in Catch as Catch Can, or as awkwardly expressive as in some of the cartoonist's short stories, but it's still pleasing to the eye. The fun to be had comes from watching Cook find narrative solutions using a one picture per page story, such as placing his characters in relation to objects in a way that shows movement. Sty-Row-Foam doesn't quite manage to make a case for itself as a necessary purchase, but it goes down pretty easy if you're wishing to pick up everything by Cook.

Substitute Life
John Pham

The belle of the summer ball and the one comic on this list everyone should pick up, Substitute Life stretches the definition of mini-comic. It's the right size, and it feels homemade. But the cardboard cover is perfectly assembled, the printing is lovely, and it even features endpapers. Copies have been staring mournfully in my direction from retail giant Meltdown's mini-comics shelves for weeks until the book showed up in my post office box in August, a gift from the cartoonist. It's hard to believe I waited this long. If Pham had worked entirely in mini-comics instead of putting his efforts into to his self-published comic book Epoxy, he would be a frontrunner for this column's mini-comics cartoonist of the year.

Pham combines the clarity of Asian comics figure drawing, the raggedness of graffiti style illustration work, immerse-yourself Western storytelling, a post-alternative tendency to boldly mix genres, and a fascination with Chris Ware's ability to structure comics rhythms on the page. It doesn't always work, but assembling a personal vocabulary is harder in comics than most art form, and Pham's good taste and ambition should be encouraged. The material in Substitute Life comes from sketchbooks, false starts and first tries. There is also a large essay on John Cassavetes and Chris Ware that I think may have seen publication in a different form elsewhere; it's very casually paced and bounces along pretty well -- the kind of speech you remember for the timbre of someone's voice than the content of what was said. It's impossible to tell from Pham's narrative just how much improvement he'll make, but the thoughtful commentary in Substitute Life, both realized and understood, proves encouraging that the artist's growth will continue.