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Minimalism Archives #4—Souther Salazar
posted December 24, 2004
Souther Salazar: Mini-Comics Cartoonist of the Year
Souther Salazar is this column's cartoonist of the year, and really, it's not even close. Any single Salazar effort would have been a welcome addition to comics art in general and among 2003's best minis; Salazar released or was a significant part of five interesting books before Labor Day rolled around -- Field Trip, Please Don't Give Up, Last Cry for Help #3, Come One Come All and In Case of Emergency Only. Souther Salazar is in one of those rare bountiful periods that a young artist experiences where all the work seems at least pretty good, some of it is great, and all of it comments in some fascinating way on the work just past. In an appearance at the super*MARKET convention in November, Salazar admitted to being very tired, and he even looked burned out. Some creative exhaustion in addition to the physical would not come as a surprise, but as so much of the cartoonist's work has a half-asleep quality it may be a long while before anyone notices -- even if it turns out to be true. For now it's enough to simply enjoy the work as it comes, furiously, one book right after the other.
Salazar's work was examined in a profile that appeared in this column early in 2003. He has since built on the strengths detailed there. His mini-comics use their handmade nature to reinforce the feeling that each book is direct communication between the artist and reader, like a cobbled-together gift, or a rambling letter from a too-talented friend. Salazar works with tiny, delicate figures, much like some of the more decorous drawings of Saul Steinberg, and cuts into many of them with observational asides or outright gags. There is little to no effort to force the work into a context, encouraging the readers to pay close attention to detail or, if they want, to simply float along on each book's dream-like qualities. Please Don't Give Up, the best of the mini-comics reprinted in Kramer's Ergot Volume Four, sounds like the worst comic ever made right up until the second you start reading it. Yet the artwork is so strange and lovely, so assured, that a reader is likely to dive into the comic as deeply as possible. And because Salazar's understanding of comics pacing is so accomplished, the way that pictures and text play off each other to set up a narrative rhythm through the way that each element is consumed, the work can be incredibly affecting. Along with Kevin Huizenga, Souther Salazar is the most interesting young cartoonist at work today, with work that really rewards in mini-comics form.
The year 2003 was strong overall, with a long list of comics that are worth seeking out. A lot of established cartoonists turned in rewarding efforts, any of which could be argued as the best of the year. The best pages in John Porcellino's latest issue of King-Cat Comics and Stories, #62, feature scenes from a living space set to spare phrasing. A new marriage hasn't dampened Porcellino's poetic side, but the new comic also bristles with good-mood humor, and seems upbeat in general. The 2003 issue of John Hankiewicz' Tepid contains a longish, single story that weaves local sports imagery into the cartoonist's already established areas of poetic interest. This work seems funnier and blacker than past issues, but otherwise mines the same territory where touches of the surreal are used to describe very common perceptions of mundane living -- timelessness, disconnection, physical decay, and regret. Hankiewicz has for years now explored ways of storytelling no one else is with comics, yet his approach is so solidly conceived it makes you feel like everyone should be doing stories like these. Longer stories like this one indicate a potential great book some time in Hankiewicz' future. At least two formidable cartoonists more accustomed to being read in more traditional formats put out high-quality minis in 2003: Gary Panter, who releases a small series of handmade comics on his web site that are very expensive but as good in their way as the rest of his body of work (particularly The Asshole); and Jason, whose convention and personal appearance giveaway Meow Baby showed off his extremely solid and idiosyncratically funny gag comics.
Many younger cartoonists either made names or solidified them with solid mini-comics offerings in 2003. Dan Zettwoch looks to have made that leap from a cartoonist with some interesting qualities to a cartoonist whose every work bears some examination. Redbird #1.5, with its judicious use of very specific pop culture observations, foldouts, careful pacing, and obtuse narrative approach, might be the very definition of a solid and enjoyable mini-comic. Chris Wright produced a comic called Legba that at first may seem derivative -- Tom Hart down-and-out whimsy meets fussy Lewis Trondheim anthropomorphism -- but on deeper examination reveals a truly organic and interesting way to cartoon, the complete package of verbal cadence and informative visual style. Finally, two mini-comics that debuted at the Alternative Press Expo and which later appeared in the aforementioned issue of Kramer's Ergot proved to be very interesting developments in a couple of slowly simmering careers. The Poor Sailor is Sammy Harkham's best work to date, and as a way of pacing his stories seems to have finally rattled into place, the improvements to come should be all in the details and craft. Anders Nilsen's Sisyphus featured feathery lines and a kind of squinty-eyed, left field approach to story development that feels light years ahead of his previous and very deliberately told, almost staid, comics.
A few 2003 minis worth checking out featured work that's not quite fully developed but has definite possibilities, a quality or two that demands investigation at a later date. David Heatley's Yesterday is a cartoon diary that stands out because it makes use of full color, very washed out yet still very bright, while the line work remains admirably ragged. It reads and looks more like a diary than many similarly intended comics do. Mark Burrier's work in Whatever You Love and The Pitch displays a nice, graceful line and deadpan sense of humor that develops nicely in the way certain sequences are timed across a cartoon grid. Jonathan Bennett's Esoteric Tales #2 was a giant leap back from issue #1 in terms of overall interest, as the cartoonist focuses on his own reaction to an event at what seems like the total expense of the minutiae that made the first book pleasant and noteworthy. Yet it's still an attractive package and Bennett seems increasingly comfortable with the medium.
All of these are solid books, but the strength of the mini-comic format was perhaps best seen in two very different cartoonists of which little had been written about prior to 2003. Allison Cole will release a book through Alternative Comics in early 2004, and a run of mini-comics ending in 2003's Stress Mess indicates she has enough in terms of a unique approach that work bears watching. Cole works with an almost stultifying realism injected with fantasy elements that take on a deadpan tone because they do nothing to change the direction or emphasis of the work. It may remind of some of James Kochalka's work, without that cartoonist's occasional emphasis on entertaining the reader. Cole's work seems at once completely affected and without affectation, a documentary movie told with stuffed animals that never calls attention to that fundamental weirdness. John Pham's Substitute Life was as strong as any single mini-comic that came out this year, an extremely well-crafted little book of mostly silk-screens that reads like a wry commentary on the artistic development on display in Pham's self-published Epoxy. Substitute Life makes you wish that every cartoonist offered up a little window like this one, while also making you feel sorry for the stifling quality that can suffuse a life when it gets devoted almost exclusively to art for too-long periods of time. But mostly Substitute Life features strong writing and quality if off-hand drawing, what a theater critic might call nice scene-to-scene work, a lot of it yet to be completely divorced from a few obvious influences but every page exuding confidence an idiosyncratic style will soon coalesce.
(Souther Salazar's web site is southersalazar.net. The comics by Chris Wright and John Porcellino were made available to this column by highwaterbooks.com, and cost $3 and $2 respectively. You can buy copies of Tepid's Summer 2003 issue by sending $5 to John Hankiewicz, 18 W Traube Ave, Westmont, IL 60559. Esoteric Tales #3 lists at $3 and the mailing address is 111 Hicks Street, Apt. 10-G, Brooklyn, NY, 11201. If you order without asking, I would send Mr. Bennett an extra dollar. Cole's contact address is hopefully still 2 College St. #502 Providence, RI 02903. John Pham can be found at epoxypress.com. Gary Panter has a shop at garypanter.com; the Jason book everyone I know bought that from him directly.)