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Minimalism Archives #2—Round-Up
posted December 24, 2004
Diversions and Distractions
A Minimalism Round-Up
By Tom Spurgeon
Because mini-comics has traditionally been the area in which new comics talent proves itself, many arts comics readers look to Minimalism for a list of brand-new comics talents to explore and enjoy. Yet today more established cartoonists than ever produce minis. Some create work between projects or targeted for a certain event. Others do work for a publisher interested in the mini-comic as a format. A brave few make the mini-comic their form of choice for the vast majority, or even entirety, of their output in the medium. Finding where the best art lies therefore often means running to known quantities, either those working with established vehicles (John Hankiewicz and his consistently interesting Tepid) or cartoonists working on a side project or two very different than the majority of their work-to-date (Jesse Reklaw on Applicant; Steve Lieber's art on Me and Edith Head). To compete with comics from savvy and experienced creators, new work must immediately impress. There is less time than ever to view every mini in the context of previous efforts, and no real reason to buy and examine a partially realized work of art just because it promises better work to come.
In other words, it's harder than ever being the new guy. Decades of art comics have raised the bar for everyone, and applying a law of diminishing returns to artistic reward comes dangerously close to apologizing for bad art. So let's be honest: none of the comics listed below, from column regulars to a rash of visually gifted newbies, demands attention solely on the basis of artistic quality. But a few are very good, most put into practice a compelling idea or two, or a couple extend a noteworthy artistic exploration another tenuous step forward. The breadth of one's appetite for comics that intrigue rather than impress may mean the difference between placing orders at the end of this column and turning the page right now.
This isn't strictly a comic, but in many ways it acts like one, and it's very funny besides. According to Jesse Reklaw's introduction, the cartoonist behind the dream chronicle Slow Wave found the photos and statements that make up Applicant in a recycling bin. In the spirit of making something new out of something old, Reklaw has refigured photos and a portion of the accompanying commentary into a fresh piece of art. "The quotes below each photo are actual things said about the pictured students by their former professors and employers, not intended to be seen by anyone but the application review committee," Reklaw informs us in his highly amusing and very apologetic introduction.
Applicant works as comedy on several levels. First, the pictures themselves are laugh-worthy. Taken during the years 1965-1975, they display the wide range of American youth that must have wandered college campuses during that stretch of student culture upheaval. Like many selections of old photos, several of the applicants look extremely familiar while others look like discontinued cars -- dead-end genetic fads from the '70s that no one looks like anymore. A second level of humor can be found in the contrast between picture and quote, a way of wringing greater effect from the blending of words and pictures that apes one of comics' most heralded qualities. In Applicant, sometimes the quotes seem to confirm some hidden quality the reader has already taken from the photo, while at other times the quote gives us something we'd never suspect after a cursory visual examination. Finally, the appraisals force us to think about the people making the comments, including such howlers of intentional cruelty as "He revealed himself to be a very bright underachiever with sharp elbows, and I wondered whether he was majoring in house-keeping and girls."
In his introduction, Reklaw expresses both moral and legal discomfort about publishing the photos and quotes, just enough to beg the question whether or not these are entirely real. If it's all a fake job, Reklaw should be commended for a pretty seamless effort. If the pictures and statements are real, Reklaw reminds us that most of these people probably went on to become professors themselves -- a fine way to point out that the cruelty inherent in many of the observations probably did not have a lasting effect on their career. This is nice to hear, but hardly comforting.
Check the Blinker #1-2
The most noteworthy aspect of this strange effort is that a full seven years passed between publication of first and second issues. The passage of time shows. Cartoonist Lars Cawley's artwork looks much more fluid and interesting in the second volume, moving from a consistent awkwardness in the figure drawing of #1 and into a more expressive, abstract visual vocabulary. Despite the rough qualities of both efforts, Cawley's work intermittently displays that special narrative ease successful cartoonists learn to harness on a regular basis. In addition, a few of the scenes in the second issue are interesting just because of the quality of the drawing. At its most intriguing, Cawley's work looks like some strange hybrid of James Sturm and Carol Swain.
Sadly, Cawley only manages this compelling effect for a few panels at a time. Most of Check the Blinker is depressingly obtuse and tedious. The second issue builds on the first issue's tale of a reluctant smuggler lost at sea by unveiling a flashback even more abstract than the main storyline. All of this seems to be building to one of those odd, fantasy works where the inherent weirdness that one experiences dealing with a foreign culture is blended into a storyline that emphasizes more concretely strange things about that non-existent country's politics and history. The primary difficulty that most stories of this type have is maintaining interest after the initial choices of setting and place are made. The story in the foreground here seems to have even less of a chance than usual of holding a reader's attention. Of course, this may all change to the comic's benefit if the next issue doesn't come out until 2008.
The City is My Garden
My older brother once met a man whose job it was to ride around Chicago on his bicycle and mark the exact place where the city would add free bike racks to any business that asked for one. My brother was immediately struck by how great a job this was, and questioned the man for the duration of his time on that city block. A similar encounter with much more fanciful elements sits in the pages of The City is My Garden. Its focused-upon worker is a gardener who tends to public foliage on a strictly freelance and self-motivated basis. He can hear the tree roots with his trusty stethoscope, or so he claims, and imagines flowerbox denizens and wall-climbing vines within shouting distance of one another engage in plant-talk despite the obvious translation problems.
The City is My Garden tells this incredibly slight and overly sentimental tale in the kind of angular, feathery art style favored by a lot of young cartoonists these days. Such brushstrokes are indeed particularly evocative when used to depict vines and branches, expressive in the same way a lot of minimalist nature painting can be. Cartoonist Alex Holden smartly keeps his narrator off-panel, thus helping focus the reader's attention on the strange man's interaction with the various plants. But no single craft element stands out, and to describe it effectively would mean an appearance in word court to petition for a word more minor than "minor." Holden's comic doesn't come close to rewarding the silent attention paid to it in the way that the non-descript city tree gives back to its quirky admirer.
Cartoonist Malcy Duff gives this mini-comic that handmade feel in a unique and interesting way. For this effort, a hundred comics were made and then afterwards named individually. Mine goes by Francis, making this the first comic I've ever owned I'm afraid will get beat up at school. Duff also provides on each title page a depiction of a character in felt with marker lines drawn on top. The effect is quite adorable. I have no idea what name or face has to do with the contents that follow.
Duff draws like the early work of cartoonists fascinated with the flatness and grotesque qualities of the comics panel as a means of social commentary, like Kevin Scalzo or Eric Reynolds. The story in Francis depicts a number of Beckett-like, helpless characters in various evocative set pieces, strangely timed and drawn out. In the best one, a square-headed figure talks to his "gran," a giant head off to one side of the panel. That figure's pathetic attempt to restore order after Gran lets him know about the inevitability of death makes a great deal of sense. In fact, the entire mini can be read as various creatures trying to pitifully carve out some sense of meaning in a world of great emptiness and disappointment, sort of like watching the alternative comics contingent at the San Diego comic convention.
Unfortunately, Duff's art lacks the ability to communicate anything other than the bare facts of what's happening. There's no resonance in the figures, and nothing truly desperate about the world in which they live. Where the artist develops from here, into visions of further grotesquery and despair or into twee statements of hope for all mankind, will mean very little if the craft fails to keep pace.
Homecoming marks another extremely attractive effort from John Kerschbaum and his personal imprint Fontanelle Press. Kerschbaum is one of the better artists to emerge in alternative comics circles in the last 10 years. His work is incredibly clean without sacrificing dynamism, and he can pull a wide range of effects out of the quality of his art in addition to the story he tells. Kerschbaum likes to use his classic funny-comic line to extremely uncomfortable effect. In the world depicted in Kerschbaum's comics, there is something poisonous, painful and grotesque lurking around every corner.
Homecoming shows off Kerschbaum's narrative chops in addition to wringing meaning from his expressive line. The story features a school of fish spawning upstream and past a number of fishermen. Kerschbaum makes the fish into a 1950s high school of greasers, upright jocks, and fitful nerds. This amusing veneer makes the horrifying gauntlet of death that much uglier, characters violated by hooks at the least opportune time or tossed pell-mell into nets with panicked looks on their faces. The real sense of danger suggests an undercurrent of quiet heroism to those fish that survive.
Kerschbaum utilizes an eight-panel grid that tightens the narrative flow, slowing down for brief moments with a single, double-sized panel that stretches across the width of the page. Kerschbaum's style allows him to draw just about anything with authority, from the impressive, competitive leaps of the male fish to the stupefied, domestic bliss of egg laying at rainbow's end. One hopes Kerschbaum's enjoyable self-publishing efforts and attractive mini-comics like this one don't keep an enterprising publisher or two from disseminating his work to a wider audience. He may not need it, but readers do.
Morgan Slade and Alex Gross
Leap Comics is a great big mini with pretty colors on the cover that strangely tries to celebrate comics nostalgia with swiped ads familiar to every kid who read funnybooks in the '60s through the early '80s. This choice baffles, because everything decent about Leap Comics has nothing at all to do with comics like that. It's like an underground filmmaker grounding some strange new work with the opening and ending credits to Dharma and Greg, although even that sounds way better than the lame effect the ads have here.
Despite its size and vibrant cover, the main story of Leap Comics is short and almost perfunctory. A kid in an institution dreams up a large bug friend who starts to kill other kids on his behalf. It's an amusing dilemma because the obvious possibilities are equally depressing -- the kid has either drummed up a reason to justify bumping off fellow orphans, or there really is an annoying superbug out there cheerfully killing children in order to do its pal a favor. With this dependable formula -- Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus plus a body count -- Leap Comics could follow a single narrative for several issues. Offering art drenched in pleasant grays and an extremely sharp, versatile sense of character design, it might be a long while before anyone realizes how boring it is.
little white bird/MEGACOM
I read and enjoy comics for part of my living, and I found the text sections of this comics-and-comics-related-text 'zine boring. This is probably a bad sign. You can't really fault the interview subjects, as Dean Haspiel and Lorna Miller are among comics' most engaging personalities. Unfortunately, the questions they're asked are less the kind that lead to entertaining give-and-take than the type that fuel the worst parts of a really boring first date: basic biographical sketches, professional histories, and general future plans. In fact, that would be a much better 'zine: "First Dates With Cartoonists," where a guy and a gal ask out various single or otherwise willing members of the comics community and report back on the results. Who talks about their last boyfriend too much? Who has soft hands and smells like cookies? Anyway, as far as this one goes, people who stand behind one of these cartoonists in a supermarket checkout line are more likely to hear something of interest than the readers of these interviews.
The comics that make up the second half of the package display some moderate visual appeal. One prays that the cartoonists are very young considering their subject matter, topics that have been worked to a death that frightens death in similar projects over the years. These stories have nothing to add. While some readers may appreciate a comics-type project that gives off that old-fashioned 'zine aura rather than presenting itself as just another self-produced art comic, most of us can safely skip this one, and all of us would be better off.
Love Eats Brains! #1-2
Although I've never heard of the comic or its author before it showed up as a blind submission for review, both issues of Love Eats Brains! are incredibly visually self-assured. Shaw's artwork recalls the Paul Pope/Ho Anderson approach: a classic European comics album style slightly abstracted for American audiences, with definite hints of street art and manga to give it a sense of collage and ragged edges. Shaw's figures look directly drawn from life. Rather than expressing himself through cartoon exaggeration, Shaw uses the disjointed result of bringing real human gestures into a drawn narrative to provide the comic with its unique energy. Yet from my standpoint, they should call this one "Certain Idioms Eat Brains," as this is precisely the kind of comics art that makes me want to lie down and read nothing but John Stanley for three years.
The story leaves me even more conflicted than the art. Love Eats Brains! is ostensibly a relationship drama where the narrator must negotiate very different but uniquely satisfying love affairs. I enjoyed the relative equanimity with which Shaw treats the female leads. But the comic is filled with the kind of whimsy that leaves me feeling less taken with life's possibilities and more like taking a warehouse job with benefits. The comics show us trips to the moon and back stories that read like playground folklore, where the reality of the incidents is never really established but one is left thinking it's more the way the character sees the world than the way the world really operates. I know very few people who live caught in the embrace of this kind of heightened romanticism, and, frankly, I don't like those people very much. There's something insufferable about perceiving the world as a spinning wheel of magic and possibility with you at its center, even if you display a sense of humor about it. But Shaw's is admittedly the kind of aesthetic certainty that leads to potential funnybook breakout stardom. In the end, I'm way more interested in watching other people read this comic than I am the comic itself.
Me and Edith Head
Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber
The most interesting thing about Me and Edith Head, by husband and wife team Sara Ryan and Steve Lieber, is how comparably fresh its stock print narrative voice seems in the context of modern comics. Me and Edith Head is very standard young adult fiction, and it's not until you stumble across the real thing that you realize something it seems like mainstream comics should be doing as a matter of course isn't being done at all. After years of browbeating, comics fans grudgingly admit that emotionally retarded 30-year-old men and the angry boys that become them respond to different visual stimuli than thoughtful 13-year-old girls. It makes perfect sense that there are differences in language and narrative voice typical to each audience, as well.
Me and Edith Head introduces us in the very first panel to Katrina Lansdale, an average, disaffected high school student who ends up in the costume design role of a school's production of Midsummer's Night Dream after failing to land the role of Titania. According to my personal recollection, Ryan and Lieber do a fine job of portraying the threadbare, junky quality of a small-school dramatic production department and the precarious, snippy relationship between the students involved there and the oft-vacuous individuals who land roles. When the focus is on the play, the comic works pretty well. Steve Lieber provides solid artwork, particularly in knowing when to allow his figures a moment of front-of-panel physical or visual interest and when to keep them cipher-like in the background. The result is an approach to the page that could keep any comic fan interested for the short duration of the story, even those used to the visual bennies dispensed by many superhero artists.
While the Lansdale character is a believable type, her domestic problems and self-transformation ring much less true than her costume design acumen. Ryan and Lieber attempt to have one mirror the other, Lansdale's ability to transform idea into reality coming only after her own self-transformation. But the divorce Lansdale negotiates at home seems like it was purchased from the ACME stock plot device catalog, and the visual evidence of Lansdale's self-transformation lack significant import even if the other characters seem impressed. The exception is an understated page where Lansdale is shown putting her life together as her parents' relationship falls apart via a clean and productive bedroom. But one functional page is hardly enough to make an emotional subplot fly. Like its narrator, Me and Edith Head remains very ordinary.
Tepid: Spring 2001
I still don't know what the hell is going on in John Hankiewicz's Tepid comics, but getting through them has become much less frightening than it used to be. This 2001 effort provides more stories that depend on little-used avenues for depicting surrealism in comics. Multiple characters crowd into strange spaces made up of haphazardly sized furniture set against furiously illustrated walls and floors. Words seep from mouths in liquid word balloons. Grotesque characters protest, entreat and beg for mercy. Reading Hankiewicz is like watching the weird parts of a David Lynch movie as illustrated by Mike Kupperman. This issue features a new effect for which filmmaking has no direct equivalent: rotating pages to suggest sublime disorientation for the people on the page as well as the reader. Hankiewicz is one of those cartoonists who dances on the fine line between sublime personal expression and hideous self-parody. One's admiration for Hankiewicz might extend past the work to his dogged faith in a particular mode of storytelling.
A story with Peter Conrad, "Most Wanted," and an inside back cover story by Hankiewicz alone, "Why Did You Join the Cult?" prove remarkable in Tepid history in that they nearly make standard narrative sense. "Most Wanted" deals healthy portions of tedium in its depiction of a world where agents petition a bureaucratic boss for the object of their pursuit to make a list and allow them a potential, future career boost. "Why Did You Join the Cult?" give the reader a standard, brief character study of a lost soul, speaking in his own words. Both stories feel like a step back from earlier, stranger short stories in past issues, although they might stand a better chance of letting a confused reader follow along more closely. Based on those stories in particular, Hankiewicz's art has improved, although it still must be categorized as the kind of style that is useful for a certain effect rather than as a mutable visual vocabulary. The issue's centerpiece, "Memorial," is a first-class Hankiewicz oddity that slowly builds momentum into an unsettling panel where multiple versions of the same characters writhe and moan. Tepid remains unique to the point it's hard to grasp onto enough comic to criticize, except perhaps to hope for continued refinement of and improvement on its creepy effects.
Copies of applicant can be ordered for $2 each from Jesse Reklaw, PO Box 11493, Berkeley, CA 94712-2493. That includes postage. A SASE gets you a free mini-comic and Reklaw's catalog.
The second issue of Check the Blinker was published by Little Projecta Limited, 33 Bentleigh Avenue, New Windsor, Auckland, New Zealand. The web site is www.littleprojecta.com. The first issue was published the year Newt Gingrich rose to power, and I don't trust it at all.
The contact information provided is 632 Grand Street, 3rd Floor, Brooklyn, NY 11211. For e-mail, try firstname.lastname@example.org
The contact information for Malcy Duff is 24 Belmont Gardens, Edinburgh, EH12 6JH, Scotland, United Kingdom; e-mail: email@example.com. The artist suggests smallzone.co.uk and tgtokyo.com as potential commercial sites.
Kerschbaum publishes several efforts, including Homecoming, through the imprint Fontanelle Press, PO Box 15, Corona, NY, 11368. He maintains a web site at www.fontanellepress.com and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I think this comic cost $2, but I'm not sure. Slade can be written at email@example.com while Gross can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. I bet they'd know. The snail mail address is 1708 La Senda Place, S Pasadena, CA 91030.
Inquiries into this mini-comic might try the e-mail address email@example.com, or the snail-mail address little white bird/MEGACOM, Attention: Ellen, 438 Clermont Ave., Apt. F, Brooklyn, NY 11238
Love Eats Brains! is available from www.printedmatter.org and through the web site www.dashshaw.com. The first issue cost $1 and the second issue $2.
Inquires about Me and Edith Head should try Sara and Steve at their web site, www.unrewarding.com.
Get your copies of Tepid for $2 each, ppd., from John Hankiewicz, 867 Fendley Drive, Apartment K-10, Conway, AR 72032. The Tepid web site is at www.g eocities.com/tepidcomics.