Comics Round-Up

All sorts of different comics to review this time around:

THE UNDERBURBS #1-5, by T.J. Dort and Joe Haley. This is a sort of goth/horror parody comic, with the humor coming from playing out the book’s central concept in the form of a teen high school drama. That conflict comes between a 13-year-old girl named Angela and Countess Winifred, a teen vampire from an evil dimension who’s trying to conquer earth. Angela inadvertently gets turned into a witch and pretends to try to help Winifred in her quest, but winds up sort of becoming her friend (despite Winifred’s essential brattiness). Along the way, there are zombies (purchased at a zombie lot), a showdown in a big-box store, siblings willingly becoming monstrous minions, mothers still knowing best, and school drama. The evil dimension resembles Canada more than Hell, considering that there’s universal health care and excellent benefits.

This book wouldn’t be out of place on Slave Labor’s roster, considering its themes and the exaggerated, cartoony black & white wash. All told, it’s a very cute book, especially for a teen audience, but it does have a few problems. The book’s pacing is sometimes slow to the point of dullness, especially when the creators seem to fall in love with the cleverness of their own dialogue. With an assortment of asides, extended monologues and strained horror in-jokes, the series’ otherwise clever concept often gets obscured. This is unfortunate, because when Dort & Haley stick to the series’ main concept and let the story flow from the relationship between Angela and Winifred, THE UNDERBURBS is quite an enjoyable series. I should note that issues 4 and 5 actually do focus in on those characters and hang some crucial plot points around them, making them the best issues of the series. This is a series in need of editing, and it can be difficult for creators to edit their own works–especially young creators. Still, it seems as though Dort and Haley are headed in the right direction.

SHIRTLIFTER #1-2, by Steve MacIsaac. MacIsaac is an extremely astute observer of human nature in his stories, both fictional and autobiographic. Issue #1, “Unmade Beds”, is fictional but is based on MacIsaac’s time spent in Japan with his partner. Identity and a sense of purpose are running themes in MacIsaac’s stories, as is self-deception obscuring the same. In “Unmade Beds”, the story’s ex-pat protagonist Derek finds himself as a “kept man” as Michael’s partner. He’s deeply unhappy but is unable to express it to his partner; instead, his ennui plays out in the form of anonymous sex while denying his sexuality to his co-workers. His unwillingness to come to terms with what he really feels and own up to those feelings is in direct contrast to his otherwise sharp intelligence and awareness. That blind spot he has is his own latent self-loathing and selfishness, and as the story ends it becomes clear that his dawning understanding of both is too late to save his relationship. MacIsaac’s restraint and subtlety are what make this story work, never hammering home key points of characterization but instead allowing them to unfold for the reader.

His autobio work in #2 ranges from brief musings and digressions to stories that are more explicitly driven by narrative. These stories link sexuality and identity, an issue that becomes especially pointed for gay men and women. The very declaration of sexuality identity becomes a defacto political statement, but to publicly deny that sexuality is to distort an essential truth about identity. In stories like “Waiting For The Bus” and “You Can Tell Us Anything”, MacIsaac struggles with his own desires and the experience of coming out to a family that is not entirely supportive. In the latter story, the juxtaposition of hurtful family statements with scenes from his loving relationship with his boyfriend are especially powerful.

The exploration of desire and its consequences are seen in stories like “Safe” (about the simultaneous desire for unsafe sex and the pressure often created to do so) and “Crush” (about an encounter on a jam-packed bullet train in Japan that underlines MacIsaac’s alienation and isolation). My favorite stories were probably “Border Crossings” and “You Do The Math”. The former is about MacIsaac’s struggle to find a job in the US (he’s a Canadian), which balances multiple identities (sexual, national, career, artistic) and forces him to make a leap of faith. The latter story is about the public/private dichotomy of sexual identity, where MacIsaac is still uneasy about how and when to come out to the general public (like many of his ESL students, who are homophobic). MacIsaac explores this issue through a series of clever vignettes, culminating in an exchange in a florist’s where he makes a point of saying flowers are for his boyfriend.

There’s one major issue I have with MacIsaac’s work. While he has a solid understanding and grounding in the language of comics and page composition, his figures have an essential stiff and static quality that is created by his drawing this comic using a computer. That makes a lot of his stories look and feel much colder than I think MacIsaac intended. This is ameliorated somewhat in stories where he uses color but was a significant difficulty in “Unmade Beds”. His use of a realistic style probably contributes to this problem; using a slightly more expressionistic approach might make his figures come alive a bit more. As I noted earlier, the use of color greatly aided in bringing his characters to life in #2, and I’ll be interested in seeing how he continues to develop his visual approach. He’s already one of the stand-out autobiographical writers working in comics today.

JOHN HENRY, by Dmitri Jackson. Jackson retells the legend of John Henry, steel-drivin’ man, whom he refers to as America’s First Black Hero, and this story subtly deals with the racial overtones of the legend. Jackson employs a simple, blocky style and a steel-blue wash to depict the duel between man and machine (John Henry vs a steam-powered drill). Jackson’s character design is his greatest asset. His line is not quite assured enough to easily carry a story, but he generally avoids over-rendering and allows his compositional skills to drive his narrative. I also enjoyed his “Brother Rage” character in his minicomic FROTOONS #3, a firebrand black orator whose speeches seem to contain parody, satire and a few grains of truth as well. Jackson obviously has a lot of potential as an artist and a distinctive point of view; his task at this point will be one of development, refinement and continued experimentation.

LOVE STORIES #1, by Mat Tait. This New Zealander tells stories mostly set in and are about his country. This is a visually striking collection told in stark and boldly outlined black & white, giving his pages a certain weight while not sacrificing the fluidity of the narrative. Tait’s local and Maori stories like “Graveyard Etiquette” (comparing a Maori creation myth to the simultaneous gratitude and resentment children feel toward their parents) and “The Heading Dog Who Split In Half” (about a legendary sheepdog) are crisply told and a delight to look at. Tat goes in a different direction with his last two stories. “Great Historical Disasters” is a hilarious collection of one-panel fictional historical events like “Admission of the Antarctic Empire to the U.N., 1974″, where we see a Jack Frost-looking figure freezing the Secretary General. “Shortcuts To Enlightenment” is a creepy story reminiscent of Zak Sally involving a ritualistic process of adding an extension to one’s house and various disturbing steps needed to possibly become enlightened. Tait is a master of tone, both visually and verbally, using shadow and intense cross-hatching to tell stories that linger in one’s mind. Tait is a major talent, skillfully navigating the intensity of his imagery with the clarity of his storytelling.

INJURY #2, by Ted May, et al. I loved the first issue of this series, and this issue is more of the same wonderful big fun. One thing I should note is that this is not actually a one-man anthology; Jeff Wilson co-wrote one story while Jason Robards did the finished art on another. “Hair of the Dog”, involving teenaged stoner metalhead soap opera, had a number of laugh-out loud moments. With the story set in 1983, I grew up with a number of metalhead kids like Jeff and Ray–every beat of this story felt familiar. The climax of the story, where heartbroken Jeff imagines that the lead singer of Nazareth (helpfully labeled with a shirt that read “The Dude From Nazareth”) sits next to him while they both sing “Love Hurts”. The overwrought, over-the-top scenario was played entirely straight, which is why it was so funny.

The other story, the next chapter of “Your Bleeding Face”, was yet another action-packed, over-the-top story with unexpected laughs. It was the story’s little touches that made it so much fun, like two gang members playing a Slade pinball game or the video game-influenced action scenes. The scene where our hero, Manleau, is in a bathroom trying to get a man waiting in a stall for anonymous sex to leave for his own safety, was a riot (“I gotta get this guy outta here. Need to keep my phrasing free of double entendres!”). May’s line is loose and lively, with a touch of that kinetic Jack Kirby energy informing his action scenes. What makes these comics so pitch-perfect is the way he’s able to tell these stories in a completely straight-faced manner that respects the source material, yet at the same time has an understanding of the ridiculousness of it. That fine balance, much like Lewis Trondheim & Joann Sfar are able to achieve in their Dungeon series, is what makes INJURY such a great comic.

SPELT-RITE COMICS #1, by Martha Keavney. Keavney is a long-time favorite artist of mine and one of the funniest comics creators around. After a long hiatus, she’s launched a new series, following her hilarious BADLY-DRAWN COMICS. SPELT-RITE doesn’t use a lot of self-reflexive humor like BDC did, but rather creates premises and either subverts them or takes them to extreme lengths. “Oh, The Irony!” takes every single time-travel cliche’ imaginable (Hitler’s mother, averting a world war, traveling on the Titanic, etc) and turns them on their head as a time-traveling Keavney enters the story for the most banal of reasons. The final punchline is Keavney at her best, managing to top every gag she had dished out. “Cease and Desist” is a story where every bit of dialogue and sound effect is a registered trademark. Amazingly, Keavney manages to construct an 18-page story out of these trademarks (even things like “Beep” and “True” are trademarked), including a guy trying to pick up a woman and that same man trying to talk a friend out of suicide.

“The Hypocrites” (a story I published in Other magazine) takes a particular set-up (two guys showing how hypocritical the other is) and takes it to its wildest extreme (a third person performing a hypocritical act that is as ridiculous as it is monstrous). The masterpiece of the issue may be “The Minuscules”, the “correctly spelled comic”, starring Aloysius and Siobhan. Every bit of dialogue is packed with commonly misspelled words (“chaise”, “cemetery”, “desiccated”, etc), leading up to a final punchline involving the word “stationary”. Keavney’s art is quite functional in its role as joke-delivery system for her set-ups–it’s simple and unfussy as she doesn’t depend on visuals for her jokes. Her combination of complexity of setup and absurdity of her jokes makes her one of the most effective humorists in comics today. Hopefully this issue will spur her productivity.

AWESOME, THE INDIE SPINNER RACK ANTHOLOGY. This book certainly has a noble aim–providing a cash award to a student at the Center for Cartoon Studies. That award, by the way, was awarded to Chuck “McBuck” Forsman, whose excellent first issue of SNAKE OIL was just reviewed here on May 3rd. This anthology was conceived by the co-hosts of the Indie Spinner Rack podcast, “Charlito” and “Mr. Phil” and published by Evil Twin Comics. It is unfortunate that so much of this anthology ranges from awful to pleasant but forgettable. While it was admirable for so many artists to donate their time and stories, too many of the stories felt lazy, rushed or inconsequential. Too many of the stories (with the nearly incoherent story by Robin & Lawrence Etherington being the worst example) almost felt like advertisements for their creator’s series rather than stories that stood entirely on their own. The exception to that objection was Kazimir Strzepek’s MOURNING STAR short story, mostly because he did a great job in quickly setting up a premise and telling a clear story.

This book seemed to suffer from the spirit of “let’s all get together and make an anthology”, lacking an editor and direction. That said, about a third of the book’s fifty or so entries were memorable, and of that number, seven were excellent and merit further discussion. First, Matt Kindt’s “Misery Index” relating stories of people he’s met on the title index–containing four quadrants of tragedy, humor, suffering and irony. True to description, the three anecdotes he relates are indeed very funny in their own awful way. Jamie Tanner’s “The Accommodation of Old Man Small” is a typically creepy, beautifully drawn entry by Tanner, whose peculiar, meticulously drawn but cartoony art always impresses.

Chuck Forsman’s own strip, “God vs Idiot” continues to plumb the themes he’s explored in his other comics: alcoholism and family. This darkly comic story was a bit reminiscent of Chester Brown, with a thin line and absurdist elements like the hand of god coming along and smashing a bottle of alcohol, and the alcoholic man somehow having the devil’s phone number from the phone book. Forsman’s self-doubting afterword was almost as funny as the strip. His fellow CCS student, Joseph Lambert, contributed another visually striking strip about the creative process and the way it creates multiple voices of doubt and rage–and how this affects others. Roger Langridge added a typically zany story about a filthy vaudeville singer who managed to cheat death, effortlessly propelling the narrative while staggering the reader with his decorative touches.

One always hopes to discover a surprising gem in an open anthology such as this, and there were two notable entries in AWESOME. Jesse Post and Ben Towle’s “The Gates of the Garden” manages to pack a lot of portentous history and humanity into just four pages. It’s an anecdote about British diplomat Gertrude Bell, whose influence in the Middle East can still be felt today. The biggest surprise in the anthology was Sarah Oleksyk’s “The Enchanted Stag”, a well-drawn, well-designed story that starts out in typical fantasy-genre fashion but soon turns those tropes on their head. The punchline of this story is so effective because Oleksyk stays completely within the expected rules and even visuals for such a story, but still manages to quickly surprise the reader.

Of the remaining stories, entries by Nick Bertozzi, Joshua Cotter, Alexis Frederick-Frost, Al Columbia, Liz Baillie, JP Coovert Sam Hiti, Matt Bernier and the team of Harvey Hsiung & GB Tran were also quite good, but not quite as memorable as the artists mentioned above.

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Rob Clough fights cancer by day, and writes about comix, college basketball and funky music by night. He is the comics editor of Other magazine and is happy to have published many fine cartoonists. He used to write for Savant and just finished something for idea-bot. He is married to award-winning poet Laura Clough (formerly Jent), with whom he lives in lovely Durham, NC.

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