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Minimalism Archives #1—The Stack
posted December 24, 2004

Minimalism Archives #1
Enter The Stack
Minimalism Round-Up
Tom Spurgeon

The danger in writing a column on a very specific subset of a print medium is that the work waiting to be reviewed literally stacks up. When real-world delays in getting to work in your assigned area of interest are exacerbated by focusing your time on profiles and line reviews, one might end up optimistically lugging a pile of comics -- The Stack -- around the country, figuring that any new day might yield that magic flash of insight and energy necessary to do a round-up of full, meaningful comics reviews. But as that day continues to put off making its appearance, as the months stretch to years, The Stack begins to become its own problem. It's an older stack now, kept somewhat lean by a constant sorting process that winnows the pile down according to the specific taste of the reviewer. Even if the energy arrives, the excited reviewer may look at first few offerings from the pile, thinks, "I need some newer comics," and the whole damn batch is tossed aside.

In mini-comics, the desire to dispose of The Stack is exacerbated by the format's tendency to be seen primarily as an avenue to discover new artists, an almost militant predilection in some fans for that moment of sweet, creative discovery and relatively unsullied ownership of the emerging talent. Never mind that many alternative comics fans will never read even the best-known and most widely distributed mini-comics; in this case, fresh meat is defined by a personal familiarity with the cow. One reason it's particularly unfortunate to front-run with mini-comics is because one important change in format since the 1980s small press heyday is its continuing appeal to cartoonists with more established creative venues. Johnny Ryan's mini-comics series Shouldn't You Be Working, now up to a fourth issue, is perfectly realized as a $1 mini. At the same time, one can't imagine a more suitable companion to Ryan's more formal, Fantagraphics-published work. If you want to understand how Ryan gives his comic books those immaculately framed one-panel car accidents of humor and horror, this mini-comic of cartoons drawn quickly at his day job lets you watch a number of near-perfect comedic moments tumble out of his head. Ryan the gag machine becomes Ryan the fully realized narrative talent right before your eyes. As a bonus, the reader of the mini gets to see cartoon versions of TV characters the artist watches and people with whom he shares time. What could be more perfect than that?

Three of Ryan's fellow Pacific northwest cartoonists have also released mini-comics companions to work more fully intended for a different venue -- a public performance in David Lasky's case, a self-syndicated weekly strip in Greg Stump's, and an irregular comic book series in Dylan Williams'. Both of their mini-comics therefore seem like business-card handouts, or trade-only publications meant for the meet-and-greet at a convention. David Lasky's Poems for Superheroes was made in conjunction with a "Night of the Heroes" public theatrical performance by a group called CAPE, whose shtick is straight-faced public support (rallies, televised public service announcements, newsletters) of superheroes, primarily in the real-world Seattle area. One such event featured a reading by a superhero who looked suspiciously like Lasky, giving deadpan readings of dumb-ass iambic masterpieces like "Superman's Pal Jimmy Olsen".

Always living in the shadow
Of Superman, trying to
Prove his independence
From Superman, knowing that
When the chips are down
It is Superman who will save his ass
Superman defines him
Damn that Superman.

Brian Sendelbach provides the only art, but there's not a comic in the booklet. It's still hard not to laugh, even for those unfamiliar with Lasky's quicksand drawl.

The last time Greg Stump was featured in this column he was lauded for a nearly all-text piece in one of the minis he crafted as a student at the University of Iowa. Now all grown up with a first job as this magazine's news editor long behind him, the cartoonist's work remains fresh, odd and unsettling, the lack of a comics-reading childhood providing a tether-less and idiosyncratic set of influences. Stump's Dwarf Attack mini-comic draws from the comic strip of the same name running in Seattle's Stranger and Portland's Mercury weeklies. The work is a mix of stabbing holes through convention -- a "Big Dogg" strip where one character complains that the end result will be disaster because the dog is obviously too big is very funny -- and flat-out character-driven weirdness: teeth that roam the earth looking for a mouth, the character "Godd" grousing and drinking. A series featuring the absurdity of the phrase "Fiddler on the Roof" is much less impressive than the other work, but the inside covers feature awe-inspiring nonsense. Cartoonist and occasional mainstream comics art historian Dylan Williams writes with great attention to formal play and the vagaries of spoken language in his comics series Reporter. A mini-comic companion, Reporter: Notes Till Feb. 1956, helps readers with Williams' doggedly obtuse plotlines without giving away the narrative store, if only to remind them to have fun.

Both Williams and Stump have developed their art into more-worthy companions for imaginative approaches to comics writing. Several mini-comics in The Stack feature this combination of interesting writing and underdeveloped art. Give Austin English credit for aiming high in The Tenth Frame. Its serialized comic story, Monk, is a multi-issue treatment of the life and times of jazz legend Thelonius Monk. English's script is lean bordering on the perfunctory, and his art is extraordinarily crude. If comics is a language all its own, then English's voice is thick with the written word's accent. While there's no way to tell if the art will improve as the series continues -- these comments are based on issues #2 and #3, and there's no discernible change yet -- the inchoate nature of English's work oddly kind of plays to his favor, mirroring Monk's desire for personal expression as an entity separate from his virtuosity. One's reaction to the mini will probably depend on how one values those same things. Tales From the Deskside #1 is a similar vehicle for a more fully developed writing "voice", this one intended to be comic and breezy. Sequential Tart heavy-hitter Katherine Keller's experiences in library work, including a current stint at University of Nevada Las Vegas' massive on-campus facility, provide a platform for sarcastic jabs at the indolence and outright stupidity of today's student. None of the drawing is accomplished, none of the gags are memorable or even that interesting. But as an aim-low/hit-something convention hand-out, it's reasonably fun to see life given to the throbbing vein on an otherwise placid librarian's forehead.

Several of the more interesting minis of the last 18 months are booklets that like Keller's seem meant to serve as business cards or items for convention trading, but that also feature tenuous but important ties to the comics form. Ron Rege and His Precursors is Minimalism founder Robert Boyd's case for a cartoon and art history that may have informed one of comics' best new talents. Drawing on sources from classic strips to punk art, Boyd's handsome little volume is the kind of informed, insightful writing that is of particular use to comics fans because it changes the way one reads an artist's work. By doing that writing in booklet form rather than for this magazine or elsewhere, Boyd achieves an effect similar to the out-of-nowhere appearance of fully formed talents like Rege. Hopefully, there will be more booklets in the series and more from Boyd's Westhampton House in general. Another fine thinker about comics, the cartoonist and teacher James Sturm, was either partly or wholly responsible for two mini-comics not intended for sale or trade. In Rhino, An Intimate Portrait, Sturm and students at the Savannah College of Art and Design have made a cartoon-heavy fanzine featuring one of early Marvel's least suave super-villains. It's cute but forgettable. More interesting is Sturm's thin pamphlet extolling the virtues of comics programs in art schools, A Case for Comics, but you might only get to read it if you're in a position to hire a professor and add a few courses to the curriculum. Atlas and Hicksville cartoonist Dylan Horrocks' 2001 trip to America may result in a few fresh copies of the New Zealand comics survey Nga Pakiwaithui Aotearoa finding their way into circulation at your better comics stores. This 94-page book was done in conjunction with the art grant and show that brought Horrocks to the 1998 International Cartoon Arts Festival. The writing is solid, and the profiles of that nation's talent are a lot of fun -- even more so now, as cartoonists like Adam Jamieson have become cartoonists to watch.

Sometimes you receive minis that contain very little cartooning that don't seem to have that specific hand-out appeal. That being said, I'd like to read more of Comics!, a newsletter with no comics in it at all that somehow found its way into The Stack. One of what looks to be an ongoing, long-running effort from Steve Ditko publisher Robin Snyder, the issue I received was mostly first-person comics industry history that makes the wonkiest interview in this magazine read like a drunken night out with Todd McFarlane. That's not a bad thing, though; I'd read more. The mostly text-dominated Food Geek #3 seemed like another specific-subject 'zine until I noticed its comics content. The few cartoon recipes -- one of those recurring ideas that almost always disappoints -- are nothing to write home about. Carrie McNinch's lushly-inked line is the most visually impressive of the three on display in the issue, although the piece from a California-based cartoonist named Helga Romoser is worth noting for future reference.

Some mini-comics have interesting visual elements but use them in ways that don't seem particularly interesting, making their quality difficult to judge. I like just fine the crude and energetic visual language Doug Chapel utilizes in comics-heavy 'zines like Action Geek!, Spun, and Chapel Zone. And I love the color printing on the first of those titles. But in this era of super-entertainment, Chapel's endless pop-cult riffs seem almost tiresome, a celebration of emblems and icons with which our lives are saturated rather than a reminder of ephemera that's slipped away. The cartoonist's personal presence in the Geek stories is also a bit too strong for my taste, making it seem less like expression and more like jumping on one's own bandwagon. Still, there is a definite look and energy here for Chapel to build on.

I felt similarly discomfited reading Crest Hut Butt Shop #2, by Philippines-based cartoonist Gerry Alanguilan. While the first issue of the title featured maniacal ravings from what seemed like the loneliest, most lovelorn comics geek in the world, the second Butt Shop drops the pent-up sexual energy (he's found someone) almost entirely in favor of vignettes. Alanguilan has a nice line -- he talks in his comics about getting some mainstream comics work and he's certainly accomplished enough to do so -- but the narrative voice is so insistent and eager to please a reader will likely become disoriented. Reading his comics is like sitting next to a boisterous personality at a party when all you want to do is sip your beer in silence. Mostly, Crest Hut Butt Shop #2 provides the same dilemma as Doug Chapel's work -- how much should a reader blame a cartoonist for enthusiasm about things in which they themselves are no longer interested? Your particular interests in certain artistic strategies will probably determine how you perceive two 1998 books published in Louisville by an artist known as "fish", Meresin's Brew and The Auburn Hills Raven. They explore a gothic sensibility in the classic cartoon tradition — awing is very different and much less appealing than any of those cartoonists, fish has come very close to nailing Gorey's disjointed narrative sense. The stories gain emotional resonance because they're pieced together in a way that matches our own start-and-stop sense of time. Recommended only if you like this kind of thing in a manner that allows you to appreciate less-realized but similar efforts.

The recent king of lushly-printed mini-comics is of course the Robot Publishing Company imprint, whose comics remain scattered throughout The Stack in the hope that someone will do the line review they deserve. You could also group these with the cartoonists who have other gigs, although in this case the full-time day job of animation. This was Robot's central idea once upon a time, that their books allow talented visual artists who work in animation a platform for printed comics work. Interestingly, some people working in and around mini-comics seemed to treat Robot with the kind of scorn reserved for an empty-headed prom queen trying to bolster her college application with a stint in the chess club. But the books were remarkably gorgeous in their execution, and the lack of compelling writing throughout didn't seem inappropriate to a group of very short stories. Of the four Robot efforts that made it through months and months in The Stack, Andre Brandou's cowboy goof Howdy Pardner is the most stylized and pleasantly silly, while Anthony Vukojevich's The Envelope Licker puts on display an interesting graphic style that could carry much longer and more considered work very easily. Michael Daedalus' Kenny's Bashi Bazouk and Joy Kolitsky's In The Sea are fun to look at but so slight one risks paper cuts on their two-dimensionality. But they're all nice little reads -- you know comics culture is a tough crowd when this many potentially accomplished artists dip their toes into the water and no one seems to care.

Certain residents of The Stack are component works on the way to a more established publication stop. In the second half of 2000, Kevin Wolfgang released a part one to his Where Hats Go, a major story that subsequently appeared as a stand-alone graphic novella and a component work of Non #5. By the time this sees print the mini-comic is reduced to a sort of preview trailer for the larger work, albeit an effective one. Wolfgang's inks are becoming more fluid and gorgeous with every comic -- each page of the simple story about a boy losing a well-loved cap looks like it took several days, and even the wind looks like it was cut from sticks of butter. Where Hats Go is a silent comic, and Wolfgang's attention to detail and storytelling economy are admirable. The story itself is slight to the point of non-existence, but if the reader asks why the story is silent at least they're not asking why the story was told at all. Having read the rather perfunctory ending to the final work, I think I may prefer the trailer.

On the other hand, Megan Kelso's work in that same issue of Non reads ten times better as two stand-alone mini-comics that popped up for sale at Chicago Comics. The covers are simple and appealing, and Kelso's interior art continues to become more graceful and easier to scan. What makes the stand-alone version a better read than the appearance in Non? For one thing, the laconic pacing seems less deadly when other works aren't clamoring for your attention. Usually, the subject matter -- fantasy stories from a kingdom of slender creatures who look related to plants -- would leave me cold. But given Kelso's writing in her straight fiction, watching her stretch her legs in this direction becomes fairly interesting, at least for now, and if there are more may eventually cause a reconsideration of her entire career output in light of the fantasy work rather than the straight stuff.

The last half of Anders Nilsen's The Ballad of the Two-Headed Boy is silent like Wolfgang's work and features figure work not far removed from Kelso's. Nilsen offers larger and wider gaps between moments than Wolfgang, affording the reader greater leeway in interpreting the fable-like story. While certainly in print as a book by now, the Minneapolis cartoonist's work is quite effective as mini-comics -- the art is bold enough to communicate even through the detail-destroying process of Xeroxes, and Nilsen uses text sparingly and well. Obtuse and sketchily realized, it has the feel of a reasonably interesting but very minor work L.A.-based animator Paul Sloboda had a new issue of his second large serial comic, Fool's Gold #2, ready for distribution at this year's San Diego convention. Sloboda clings to genre storytelling like a bee-stung child to his father's torso. You're much more likely to find whispered conspiracies, strange encounters, a talking monkey and flamboyant bad guys than you are any of the usual real-world or poetic preoccupations of today's alternative comics. That very straight, '80s self-publishing movement approach to story distinguishes Sloboda at this point amongst his peers, although the unrealistic nature of the plot can be disconcerting in that it makes it hard to gauge the real-world dangers that face the protagonist. Still, Sloboda's comics have a sturdy, visual flair, particularly in their imaginative layouts, which he approaches with a playful enthusiasm reminiscent of Matt Wagner's more creative mainstream comics work.

Some of the comics have obviously stuck around in the Stack because of similarly unique visual details. The fat, funky lettering in Jennifer Feinberg's Chi has no mainstream antecedent, but it's just as fun to look at. Unfortunately, its creator's unique graphic approach may be the comic's only appeal, as the stories are inconsequential to the point of being dull. Kevin Scalzo's Sugar Booger was recommended in another column in an early issue of this magazine. The mini-comic is prettier than most of Scalzo's illustration work, but exchanges fascinating, grotesque elements for an soft, shiny, Archer Prewitt-like veneer. It's still good-looking. Two efforts from T. Motley, a self-proclaimed "doodle comic" called Neptoons, and the second issue of True Fiction (now almost three years old), both offer nicely designed characters. Which one you prefer probably goes to how much you like the affected fairy-tale narration available in the latter. And while it's easy to lose the loose narratives in the work of P.Shaw!, the mini-comic Just Teen Freaking contains a funny, conventionally-told, humor story.

A couple of major mini-comics that came out last year deserve mention before they're subsumed into talk of newer offerings. The Kurt Wolfgang-edited Lowjinx #3 is a series of spoofs of alternative comics artists and big-name mini-comics offerings. One imagines it may have been subtitled "The Big Rip Off" because of the incredibly limited audience that must come with parodies of already-limited audience items like these, no matter how well done, particularly when half the fun seems to be trying to figure out who is being mean to whom for what reason. Some of the parodies are very funny. Tony Consiglio attacks Dean Haspiel's work with all the subtlety of the opening credits to a Spike Lee movie, and the vitriol is almost as humorous as the implied criticism. Whichever artist parodied the storytelling of Maus by using the same motifs to relate a drug-dealing story should be given an award. There are also worthy commentaries of a less exact or blunt nature, such as Jordan Crane on Chris Ware and someone (Jef Czekaj?) on Brian Ralph's silent comics. Only a few, such as the easy parodies of newspaper strips and Alex Robinson's bizarre fucking-and-stabbing version of Bone, fall flat, a low percentage for any anthology.

The Stack absorbed Tony Consiglio's ambitious cartoon short story More or Less into its body at the same convention as Lowjinx #3 (SPX 2000), and it's a nice primer for the kind of easygoing slice-of-life work the Brooklyn-based cartoonist has been doing for what seems like forever. Like many of his stories, Consiglio never manages to be as laugh-out-loud funny as you'd like him to be, nor does his chosen visual approach cohere in a way that automatically makes you want to see more of this specific cartoon world. But More or Less has its moments, such as a scene where Tony is asked to smell a mutilated, poorly wrapped hand, and is appealingly bouncy throughout. If nothing else, More or Less should be added to any collection of representative mini-comics work from the last decade. The Stack took several of Ben Steckler's mini-comics into its body at the same convention, but only The Adventures of Yugo Girl! #1 remains. Steckler seems to be enjoying himself, giving his comics a pleasant energy that they wouldn't necessarily build from the rough craftwork on display. Still, he's learned that if you have only one joke you tell it all the way to the end. Unlike the familiar styles represented by Consiglio, and Steckler, Cinders McLeod's tiny-format collection of her Broomie Law strip from Glasgow is a mini only in size. A gentle, politically-driven strip with a nice, gentle style, Broomie Law isn't sharp enough in conception or daring enough in execution to be a must-read for anyone but its original, local audience.

That limbo between the wastebasket and the coffee table holds a great number of American books as well. Dan Zettowch's Collectin'! has an interesting if forgettable story that could have been improved greatly through more facile art. But the story effectively conveys the treasure hunt aspect of collecting, and gives some wonderfully atmospheric glimpses into Louisville, Kentucky, the kind only someone with intimate local knowledge can provide. Robert Ullman's line work becomes more appealingly simplified in issue #7 of From the Curve, although it seems as if he's a couple of creative breakthroughs away in his approach to narrative to do a story that memorably stands on its own. The funniest feature is the cartoonist's own dissection of an earlier, failed comic. Much less effective than the works from Ullman and Zettwoch are Jason Ramos' Almost a Haiku and Matthew Kirscht's Pickle! Ramos' comic seems to catch him really, really early in his artistic development, although his willingness to try things like cartoon read-alongs to Bob Dylan songs shows a certain healthy loose approach to his work. The Halloween story in Pickle! may be a work of genius for all I can tell, although I'd feel better about examining it further if the protagonist didn't look exactly like a turd. The cartoonists that tend to improve in leaps and bounds art-wise tend to be those who are seemingly drawing as they go, like Kirscht, so maybe the rest of his career will explain why a manager of Quimby's pushed for this mini-comic being added to The Stack above all others at her fingertips.

That trip through Chicago's finest comic book stores yielded several mini-comics that settled into the stack, mostly from cartoonists I'd never seen before. The third and fourth issue of a mini called Sentimental Mood Delusions kind of defies heavy analysis. These are tone poems more than narrative comics, the kind of thing where you can't tell if the overall feeling of each piece represents a departure from a more varied outlook or if it's just artist Michael Bonfiglio wallowing in sickly-sweet banality. The drawing has some energy, though, and the freedom to use text as a graphic element is a lesson many cartoonists never learn. I'll agree with James Kochalka that there's something weirdly compelling about Neil Jam, although I find the static pacing more appealing than the opverall look of the work. Cartoonist Neil Fitzpatrick leaves nothing out; his rhythm is very, very plodding and straightforward. Dreading the idea of reading more than this seventh issue indicates that the visual appeal would have to be much greater for me to enjoy the work in concentrated bits. Maybe it would make a decent "Spy Vs. Spy" type feature in a small-press anthology? Also found in Chicago, a cartoonist named DEI has given us at least five issues of a comic called "Sham," dedicated to weirdly obvious shit, fucking and boner jokes done in a style slightly reminiscent of Don Martin's work. If that sounds interesting, remember those kind of comics always sound better than they read.

At the bottom of The Stack lie several recommendation-worthy comics. Fred the Clown #1 was one of the top comic book releases of last year, and certainly its sweetest surprise. Langridge was seen at the year 2000 Small Press Expo carrying around similarly lovely mini-comics like The Fabulous World of Things, Spittoon Funnies, Frankenstein Meets Shirley Temple, Let's Ask Fred the Clown and Fred's Dream. Although I believe a lot of the work has been printed elsewhere, and the minis stretch all the way back to the early 1990s in terms of age, they're like a dream of what mini-comics could look like and if nothing else have to appreciated on that level. Buy the regular comic; seek his minis. Another high-quality preview, after a fashion, came from Jessica Abel with her silent Trazo de Tina, something that may have appeared elsewhere but which I purchased in mini-comic form. The work is an homage to the cartoonist Blutch, but serves as a nice companion to her new series La Perdida. It's as visually interesting as anything she'd done to date.

Gold Dust Comix by Jim Drain is another gem, this one from the rich vein that is the Providence/Boston area. It's a loose sketchbook of scenes and mini-narratives reminiscent of a Saul Steinberg book. Drain's cartoon vocabulary is much more limited than the great New Yorker artist, but equally odd. Aliens with oblong heads reminiscent of a Jack Kirby drawing interact with owlish-looking fox women, both sharing space with mullet-having, mustache-bearing simpletons. For some comics, like this one, the description is the recommendation. Arebeitees is a mid-'90s collaboration between Marc Bell and Rupert Bottenberg reprinted last year. The little cartoon scenes are as lovely as you might imagine, even more so because of the teeny-tiny size of the booklet. The pictures are almost hypnotic, compelling the reader to look at them over and over again in that rare way cartoonists have of making worlds in which you'd like to live. Finally, were it to appear as a live-action drama Leela Corman's As Is is what a veteran theater reviewer might call a well-staged version of a familiar story. One friend shows up at another friend's workplace out in the woods, and proceeds to bitch them to near-death. The dialogue is pretty solid, and the overall effect is aided by Corman's nice line and elegant sense of spacing. Finally, Impossible #2 lacks a contribution by last issue's most interesting cartoonist, Kevin Huizenga, but has the best story I've ever read about superhero carnies (Dan Zettwoch again) and features a great cover by the consistently amusing Ted May. May is one of those cartoonists who if you find them funny, they're funny right down to the quality of their line. The discovery of something expressive and interesting at the bottom of a reading pile is one of the sweeter things in life, and makes the decision not to toss The Stack aside more than worthwhile.

This is my last minimalism, if not in publication order than in spirit. Thank you to all the cartoonists who sent in work. Mini-comics are wonderful for so many reasons: as a highly-mutable format for unique work, as the best opportunity for new talent to be seen, as a low-cost way for established cartoonists to publish more often and as a low-expectation avenue for publishers to keep more work in print. Please continue to make them, buy them, trade them, patronize the stores that carry them, support the sites that sell them. Most of all, send them to this magazine for review, because The Stack is gone.