Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Minicomics Round-Up: Kelly/Antal, Kowalczuk, Callahan, Tripodi

Scrambled Circuits 1-4, by Cameron Callahan. These are interesting comics in that they represent a creative ground zero for a new cartoonist. Callahan simply started making comics one day to express himself, and while the results are understandably raw, there's definitely something compelling about them. These comics are clearly autobiographical, but Callahan features robot, lizard and monster stand-ins for all of his characters. His own stand-in is Primus, a robot who wears a Ninja Turtle-style mask, while his parents are giant lizards. It's a gimmicky choice that works, because Callahan can draw simple and expressive monsters in a way that he's not quite able to do while drawing people. It also adds a layer of fantasy to his real-life strips, allowing him perhaps to say and draw things that would be more uncomfortable if he was actually drawing those close to him. It's more than a gimmick, though, because one also gets the sense that Callahan feels confused and alienated by the world and his circumstances, and the drawings get across this feeling without being too obvious about it.

The results can be seen in the actual stories. The first issue features anecdotes from working in a bookstore and then later moving to the desert to take care of his dying grandfather, a move that put him in maddening isolation. The second issue contains essays about how we develop personalities, how to deal with bullies and the inception of creativity. The third goes back to more quotidian information, as he moves in with his father, starts art school, starts going out with a girl (in a series of very sweet strips) and gives dating advice to his best friend. The fourth issue sees Callahan going to a bigger format and using other artists to draw his stories. While it's a different look to be sure (and I thought Dylan Canfield's story was perhaps the most effective in the book), I didn't find it more effective than Callahan's own line. Callahan's own chops as a writer have certainly improved from issue to issue. Instead of slightly rambling anecdotes, he's begun to add more structure and more obvious story rhythms to give these stories more punch. That's certainly true in the story about going to a video store with his dad as a teen and being denied a chance to watch anime, as well as a hilarious story about two mothers seeing Callahan and his friends play and discuss esoterica regarding a fantasy card game. The final story, where he shows his mom and his step-dad some of his comics and they read them on the spot, had some remarkable emotional resonance. Callahan is clearly a young artist dedicated to the form, getting better in public and grappling with emotional truths from a number of different angles.

Vreckless Vrestlers #1, by Lukasz Kowalczuk. This is a gleeful bit of nonsense from Polish cartoonist Kowalczuk. It combines the cartoonish and melodramatic glee of professional wrestling with the visceral, nihilistic violence of Johnny Ryan's Prison Pit series. They're also a form of cartooning problem-solving, as Kowalczuk tries to make each bout different while finding ways to highlight each of the combatant's abilities in an interesting and clear manner while finishing each one in a satisfying manner. In this issue, The Eye battles the Crimean Crab in a splattering bloodfest that incorporates ringwork, chopped-off hands replaced with sharp implements and a grotesque final-panel reveal. It also features a character named Vegan Cat overcoming the noxious fumes of the Flatwood Monster and shredding it to bit. The reveal here is also pretty nifty, though it comes earlier in the story, robbing it of some of the power the first story possessed. Kowalczuk delights in using a chunky line and over-the-top character dynamics and revels in the sort of American pop culture melange he's created here by combining monsters, pro wrestling and gladiatorial combat.

Black Sheep and Melee, by Diego Tripodi. Tripodi is an Argentinian cartoonist heavily influenced by the likes of Frank Miller and Will Eisner. Mood, shadow and density are the hallmarks of his pages. In Black Sheep, he's also very much influenced by director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune (even naming the locale after the latter) in this story of a man who sacrificed being a samurai to spare a friend and raise his own family. The story opens as the samurai have finally tracked him down and he and his family have to deal with their fate. It's formulaic if well-executed, with all sorts of zip-a-tone, dense and shadowy hatching, ink smudges, extensive use of silhouettes, cinematic transitions and other tricks adding visual excitement to each page There's also an interesting climax with a couple of clever twists.

Melee is an anthology of his short stories and collaborations. The most intriguing one is "Slower Burning", a collaboration with his publisher Jeremy Baum. It's about two young vampires and a painting that captures their image, with one desperate to break out of her circumstances. The use of color is especially effective. "Toy Box Queen" is a sweeter story dominated by brighter colors but also highly influenced by Miller's character design style. It's about a toy soldier and a female doll and their efforts to be together. "Smoke Signal" is a more surreal tale dominated by red and black about the woman in the moon. Once again, it's heavy on Eisner-style noir atmosphere. "Avalanche", about aliens rescuing a man and a dog in the snow, references a lot of European comics, with a touch of Moebius in there for sure. Tripodi seems to be cycling through his influences rapidly, and he would be an ideal illustrator for a long-form fantasy comic.

Tales of the Night Watchman: Staycation and It Came From the Gowanus Canal, by Dave Kelly, Lara Antal & Molly Ostertag. The Kelly-written and Antal-drawn Night Watchman "franchise" is marked by its superhero and supernatural tropes, but it's really a good old-fashioned slice-of-life comic, the kind that used to be far more common twenty years ago. Staycation eschews all of the supernatural aspects of the series and focuses instead on Nora and a friend going on a beach adventure. This is a slight little tale about personal reflection, friendship, loneliness, escape and betrayal. It acts as a prologue for the larger series, and it's interesting that Kelly and Antal have chosen to write so many interstitial stories surrounding the larger stories. It's clear that they want to flesh out the characters as much as possible as well as get to tell stories outside of what is clearly a tighter story arc in the main comic.

It Came From The Gowanus Canal is more of a "monster of the week" story that contains elements of noir and horror along with developing its characters. It's a clever twist on the old mobster movie trope of "cement overshoes", as those murdered by the mob and dumped in the river come to life as the "Gowanus Golem", killing the children of the vicious mobster and his cronies who killed them. It deepens the relationship between the Night Watchman's alter ego (Charlie) and Serena, the young punk who's working in the coffee shop that Nora manages. It adds a level of complication to the relationship between Nora and Charlie, the former of whom wants to be involved in his adventures and the latter who wants to keep her safe and away from danger. It also adds tantalizing clues as to his past and his missing memory. The art from Molly Ostertag is solid, though the action sequences are stiff. The comic also fairly cried for color, as the use of shading was on the dull side. Overall, this is a nice hybrid of the quotidian and the creepy with modest aims.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Two From Conundrum: Alex Fellows and Jimmy Beaulieu

My Neighbour's Bikini, by Jimmy Beaulieu. Originally published by French press Les 400 Coups, this is part of Conundrums BDANG series that translates European comics into English. This is a novella that's about slowing down and looking at one's surroundings; as such, Beaulieu's art is such that almost every panel and page is one that almost demands that the reader linger on it. It looks like the book was shot directly from his soft pencils with no inks. The lively, spontaneous line is given some weight and depth with pencil shading and subtle greyscaling effects. The book's concept is simple: a power outage in Montreal leads a young man to screw up the courage to talk to the young woman who lives across the street from him, as both of them decide to spend time together since the power outage has effectively ended their days.

For the man, slowing down means being less frantic about his writing and need to work. For the woman, it's about calming down and helping others. Their "meet cute" is highly awkward, as he squawks out a series of dumb remarks, but the woman sees enough in his character to tell him some surprisingly intimate stories. When they decide to head to the swimming pool, the story slows down even further, in such a way where one gets the sense that both parties know where this is going and are happy that it's going to happen. The predictability of the story is beside the point; its essence is in freezing that moment, including a reverie the man has where he hopes that this is going to be a great relationship. Beaulieu's affection for the young woman is obvious by the loving way he draws her as a beacon of beauty but especially grace. At the same time, the story is rooted in simple desire, as several sex scenes indicate. It's an easygoing story about slowing down, taking chances, getting off the treadmill of work and really looking around and seeing the world. The book is a feathery trifle, to be sure, but it's a beautiful looking trifle.

Spain And Morocco, by Alex Fellows. This is a crazy book that shifts its gears several times, to ever-more bewildering effect. It's about two guys in their early 20s who decide to blow a bunch of money and go to Spain for a vacation. Walt is a slender, homely and bespectacled artist who loves stealing art supplies from his job who is sexually frustrated but wary of come-ons from women he's not interested. He's the proverbial "nice guy" who in reality has a sleazy and almost predatory quality. Dan is a portly schlub who doesn't have much going on, and Walt has to talk him into going. From the very beginning of the book, both of these characters fully capture the desperation of horny young men in all its unpleasantness. Their behavior is never portrayed as cute or excused as just boys being boys, and there are consequences for their actions. They also don't understand that their lives, tedious though they may be, were at least insulated by a certain set of rules.

On vacation, those rules go out the window when they consort with fellow Americans who are similarly out to ditch their moorings. Once Walt & Dan hit Spain, they meet two young women who seem to be a perfect opportunity to get laid. Things very quickly bizarre when the four go to a restaurant and the owner/waiter/chef starts hitting on one of the women (who happens to be married), while the other, her sister Delphine, sees right through Walt's "nice guy" persona. The waiter disappears, makes Dan chop onions and abandons the party to make time with the woman on the roof. That strange scene devolves into Dan leaving, getting drunk and falling in with a couple of scoundrels on a beach, and Walt going home with Delphine.

Delphine has her own agenda, however, and it involves stringing Walt along as much as possible and including him in a shoplifting scam. She tires of his constant advances, slapping him away when he tries to force himself on her in an inept manner. This leads Walt and Dan to go to Morocco, and that's when the book gets really weird. A woman who takes a shine to Dan is blown up by a bomb mere hours after entering the country. Walt dreams that the Devil has told him that he wants him to suffer because it creates better art and believes this is real. When Dan thinks Walt has gone crazy, the Devil shows up in their hotel room and offers them a deal. He will get them laid if they write down a humiliating memory for him to feast upon.

The next thing they know, they're on a bus and meet two willing American women who astoundingly invite them to stay at their villa. A woman named Trisha has sex with Dan pretty much right away, in a manner almost precisely like how Dan told the Devil he wanted (a minimum of complication and conversation); after he orgasms, she appears to him to be the Devil, all pink and flesh, squirming on top of him. Of course, Dan himself turns into the Devil after devouring a particularly awful memory of high school that Walt illustrated in a totally over-the-top bit of ridiculousness that transforms their experiences from a possible shared hallucination into out-and-out madness. That madness is entirely in thematic keeping with the rest of the book however, so when it happens, it's shocking but logical. The trip brought to the fore a lifetime's worth of embarrassing moments, awkward and painful memories and the naked realization that Dan and Walt weren't much more than pathetic creatures with frustrated desires.

Visually, Spain and Morocco is a demented feast. Fellows' line reminds me a lot of Tim Krieder's: lots of long faces, angular jaws and brows and squinty eyes. There's a fine level of detail here whose purpose is to disgust and never to titillate. Compare this to the loving, lush pencils of Beaulieu that celebrate and objectify bodies: here, the bodies are nothing but objects that look more like pieces of flesh than actual human beings at times. Fellows' use of color is almost always given over to create a contrast between the mostly black and white and fine-line character design. That contrast is meant to evoke the bewildering effect of being in a foreign country; all natives have their skin color depicted but all English-speaking characters are given an ashen appearance. The grotesqueness of the character design mimics the banally debased nature of the characters, as they really give a resigned Devil very little to work with. In the end, the characters don't learn lessons; instead, they simply survive their experiences in a scarred manner that clearly gives them pause. They gave the Devil what he wanted, after all, and it's unclear what their fate is after this.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Brit Comics: The Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humour: Volume 2

The Hic & Hoc Illustrated Journal of Humour Volume Two: The United Kingdom, is a follow-up to the publisher's first volume of humorists from the United States. One of the reasons why Hic & Hoc is one of my favorite new publishers is Matt Moses' dedication to printing actual humor comics, something that had gone out of style for many publishers over time. This volume, edited by Lizz Lunney and Joe List, focuses on quick-punch single page stories for the most part. A few key contributors have multiple strips throughout the book, giving it a nice rhythm while varying the style of humor. Some of the pieces are outright gags, while others are more humorous slice-of-life stories. I'm going to go creator by creator and focus on the most interesting strips in the book.

Luke Pearson: The NoBrow star is better known as being whimsical rather than out-and-out funny. In this book, however, he goes to all sorts of extremes. His first strip is a gross-out effort built around the expectation of a different punchline, subverting the comedy of manners that is the explicit punchline. His second strip once again subverts an initial interaction and goes in a far more absurd direction, as a man ends up in a romantic relationship with a robin and winds up falling out of what turns out to be a tree after sex. His third strip borrows from the Michael DeForge playbook, as what appears to be a personal ad written by a cartoonist is in fact written by a horrifying monster that's a DeForgian nightmare. The fourth strip also plays with his style in a different way, looking more like something out of Paper Rad, as a snooping roommate looks at someone's internet cache and finds some rather distressing search histories. Pearson really stretches his cartooning muscles here rather than do what is expected of him, and as a result he shines the brightest here. 

Lizz Lunney: Lunney's "Alternative Greeting Cards" are one of the funniest things in the book, with entries like "Congratulations on finding your long lost father/commiserations on finding out he's dead" being one of the darker and funnier bits. She uses a simple line to get across her humor that ranges from the absurd to the morbid.

Joe Decie: The autobio cartoonist consistently delivers the laughs here, whether he's talking about the "untidy Decie DNA" that afflicts three generations of slobs, a gag about his brain needing a system update, burying a remote battery and digging it up a week later to gain the satisfaction of having a working remote again, and (best of all) advising the reader to sell things to door-to-door solicitors as a means of driving them away. That's an especially artfully delivered strip, even with the backfire of having one of the salesmen enjoy the comic that Decie tries to sell to him. As always, Decie's slightly scratchy and naturalistic style and extensive use of greys creates a dreamy, pleasant atmosphere for the reader to latch on to.

Philippa Rice: Her strips about sisters are pleasantly grotesque and knowing about familial relationships; here, two sisters try to trick each other into putting raw eggs into tea and cereal. Rice employs a scribbly, scrawled style here where those scribbles filling in space are meant to be apparent. These are funny drawings meant to be looked at as drawings that nonetheless get across a certain kind of familial emotional truth.

Kristyna Baczynski: Her strips about aliens shopping and fossils arguing about whose eternal view is worse are mildly funny, but they are exceptionally well-drawn. Her funny and exaggerated style sells most of the jokes in both cases.

There are some strange strips that aren't conventionally funny, but they are of interest because of their sheer weirdness. Becky Barnicoat's entry about a bear who tries to make friends with children is lovingly rendered with a level of detail not unlike Anders Nilsen; the poor bear makes bizarre statues of children that partly frighten them but mostly drive the brats to get their parents to drive the bear away. James Downing's story of a demented child's show host who has a woman on to recite Pi is the single weirdest story, as she fails and goes on to hide on a mountain for a hundred years. The exaggerated character design and absurd (and occasionally non sequitur nature of the jokes) remind me a lot of Paper Rad. Donya Todd's story about crash landing on a planet is along the same lines visually, leaning toward more DeForge-style use of tiny, squiggly arms in what turns out to be a romp. Isaac Lenkiewicz has an anthropomorphic walrus attacked by naked children, creating a weird atmosphere where they accuse him of being a pervert. It's a story without a pat resolution that is nonetheless absurd in the most anxiety-provoking sense of the word, aided by his clean, beautiful line.

There are silly and less interesting gags as well, like Fred Blunt's scrawled monkey & elephant story where they take turns hurling things at each other, Jonathan Edwards' nonsensical story about onion curses, and Gary Northfield's extended sci-fi ass joke. The two outstanding slice-of-life bits both revolve around popular internet memes/games. Timothy Winchester turns a moment of appreciating nature into a typically demented game of "Would you rather?", expertly turning a rant of protest into a clever resolution thanks to a well-placed story beat panel. Stephen Collins' strip about a teenage boy trying to get over on a girl with a game of "Zombie Bunker Apocalypse" is funny and knowing, especially since the boy doesn't come close to getting over. The other really notable strip belongs to Gareth Brookes, even if it is a bit meta: he lists any number of stupid suggestions for comics people have given him over the years, with one example being the only two worthwhile topics: Chelsea and Chelsea Under-21s. The rest either don't really have much of a punchline or fall into the absurd or parody categories. The anthology clocks in at a tight seventy pages but easily could have been fifty pages and had more of an impact. It was nonetheless a solid effort that spotlights a number of young British cartoonists.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Getting Filthy With Aaron Lange

Aaron Lange is one of a handful of the few truly skilled underground comics pornographers. This is a class of cartoonist that goes beyond the merely perverted, like Robert Crumb and later Rick Altergott, and exploits sex for shock and humorous purposes. Whereas Josh Simmons fuses filth with horror (especially body horror) and Robin Bougie's porn is explicitly and unflinchingly satirical, Lange plays it strictly for laughs. For Lange, there are no lines when it comes to jokes; like the brutally acidic stand-up comedian Anthony Jeselnik, Lange gleefully crosses and erases all lines of propriety and respect for others. His material is frequently racist, sexist (to the point of misogynistic and beyond), homophobic and sometimes anti-Semetic. He is not only unapologetic about this, but in fact gleefully revels in crossing the line. Perhaps the most offensive of his cartoons was "Anorexic Jew", from Romp #3. At the end of this gag, he asks, "Do I have an Eisner Award yet?" acknowledging and sneering at the comics establishment (and really, polite society as a whole) in one fell swoop.

Of course, like Jeselnik, Lange is extremely skilled in how he constructs his taboo jokes. One thing that's true is that while Lange's Romp material in particular is shock humor, he never lets the shock alone act as the humor. He always has a solid, smart punchline crafted that blends perfectly with his superb drawing ability, all in the service of his decidedly politically incorrect jokes. What sets Lange apart from your average smut-peddler is a willingness to really "spill some ink" about himself and his family in his autobiographical pieces, all of which are uniformly excellent and entertaining. Not since Denny Eichorn started Real Stuff has there been an artist tell so many sordid tales about himself and others, only Lange's stories are more organically whole because he handles both writing and art duties. (Not surprisingly, Lange has drawn a couple of features for Eichorn's newest iteration of his series.)

For example, his "My Grandad" (from Razor Burn #?) is a warts-and-all, matter-of-fact account of his beloved grandfather, who happened to be a member of the Hitler Youth who then fought in the German navy in World War II. It revels in his grandfather's contradictions as a human being; a self-professed "hippie" who nonetheless recalled the good old days when everyone had jobs in Germany because of Hitler. That personal complexity is the key to understanding and enjoying Lange's work, because his personal accounts reveal a loving and caring individual who is also neurotic and possessed a huge self-destructive streak in the past. A good example of this playing out is "Second Handed" (also from Razor Burn), a remarkable story about working with junkie grifters as a used record store clerk. It shows tremendous empathy for the junkies and desperate people he encountered without mythologizing or romanticizing them. These stories are Lange at his best.

On the other hand, "Dumb Cunt Funnies" and "LSD Genie" and "Apocalypse Period" are pandering underground fodder. There's not much humor to be found here, as jokes about women on their menstrual cycle were tired a long time ago. Much better are his "Loneliness is..." and "Sexual Frustration is..." features, which combine stereotypes and cliches with real truths, both personal and generalized. His Archie-inspired "Washington Beach" feature is outstanding as it mocks hipster culture. Admittedly, his targets are a little on the easy and obvious side, but his excellent comic rhythm is at its best when channeled through actual characters. Another highlight of the mostly great Razor Burn is "My Dad", another warts-and-all feature about his father. His dad is a far less polarizing figure than his grandfather but is no less full of contradictions. There is real affection in this portrait and a sense of a no-bullshit relationship between the two of them.

The three issues of Romp that Lange sent on have their moments but are generally less interesting than his more personal work. That said, there are a number of inspired moments. "Incest and Peppermints", a tale of brother-sister incest designed as a form of protest, is so over the top that it can't be taken the least bit seriously. Lines like "Take that, Henry Kissinger!" made me laugh out loud. Similarly, the strips featuring his sexual sad-sack character Hesh tend to be some of the strongest work in these comics because of how ridiculous they are. These are the strips that remind me most of Altergott's gross absurdism, with a strip featuring an Indian man eating Hamburger Helper out of a woman's vagina being the most over-the-top and yet undeniably clever. Hesh and his friends Jazz and Veronica (an S&M enthusiast) all try to push the limits in a deadpan manner that becomes ridiculous thanks to Lange's mastery of perverted situation comedy. He wisely positions Hesh as a loser who's the object of pretty much every punchline, be it humiliating "baby play" or being unable to participate in piss play because he's got an erection.

His most recent comic, Trim #2, displays Lange's best and worst instincts as a cartoonist. On the one hand is a weak-sauce gag like "White Male Privilege." It feels less like a strip by a cutting-edge cartoonist and more like one by a Men's Rights activist. In the strip, there are three scenarios: 1) A woman on a date with a man, telling him that sex is out of the question and asking him to pick up the check; 2) A woman telling a professor he's being denied tenure because of a sexual harassment claim; 3) A young black man harassing a white couple on the street. Lange's attempt at deflating the concept of white male privilege fails spectacularly, because even the examples he brings up are lame. The first panel seems to suggest that men are owed sex, especially if they pay for dinner; the second suggests that sexual harassment is either always falsified or else unimportant; the third conflates the discomfort of being harassed on the street with being harassed (or worse, murdered) by police, discriminated against in real ways that affect quality of life, etc. It's Lange punching down against easy straw man targets. The worse part about the strip is not that I disagree with the politics, but the hacky nature of the gags. It's a disingenuous strip.

On the other hand, his fantasy story "Sexy Alcoholic Girlfriend" takes a certain kind of stereotype and personalizes it in such a way that makes it both funny and intimate. "Clear Autumn Day", Lange's encounter with the Church of Scientology, is equally revealing in that it confronts his depression. The "free personality test" promised at Scientology storefronts showed that all of his test scores were deeply in the negative, with the exception of "motivation", which was high. This alarmed the tester, who said "I'm afraid of what you're motivated to do!" Lange's art is at his best here; a cross-eyed self-portrait with beads of sweat flying off his head and the vastness of outer space behind him, really get at dizzying patter that was thrown his way by the scientologist. Lange's "Six Drawings of Zoe Lund" is a fascinating, affectionate take on the actress/writer/model; each image is naturalistic, yet bears Lange's unique illustrative stamp. Lange loves spotting blacks, uses curly & thick lines liberally and stipples details like lipstick and pupils. He nails Lund's mesmerizing on-screen persona, that sense of great intelligence and unpredictability. "Do You Wanna..." is another one of Lange's dirty, Seussian rhyming schemes, this time devoted to getting drunk. It's disposable but amusing at times.

Lange certainly blurs the line between edgy and puerile. There's a certain palpable glee present in his more transgressive material, like a little kid being caught writing dirty words on a bathroom stall. There's an energy present in these comics that lifts many of them above simple pornography, as Lange takes genuine pleasure in drawing filth and making it funny. The energy in his more serious strips is different; it's manic but almost desperate. Lange obviously has things he wants to get off his chest, and while he usually manages to make the worst of situations sound funny, there's no hiding the desperation, the loneliness and the sheer frustration he feels. That defines his work more than anything: he's an underground cartoonist fully capable of unleashing his id in the most puerile way possible, but he's also in touch with his emotions and how to grapple with them on the page. That freeing of the id is balanced by the weighing of his ego, creating a unique reading experience that's often uncomfortable and frequently hilarious.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Justice Does Not Pay: Crime World

David King's Crime World comics at first glance are a dramatic tonal shift from his other material. They're hyper-violent, visceral and focus on genre concerns. Of course, they do share the same kind of melancholy air that borders on nihilism of his other comics. In Crime World, crime not only does pay, but it's also almost completely indistinguishable from justice. There are few cartoonists whose line I admire more than King's. He works in the tradition of Tom Hart and Charles Schulz in terms of the simply-designed scrawl of his character design. There's even a touch of Matt Feazell stick-figure simplicity in some of his characters' faces: a circle, a line, a triangle and a couple of dots. Thematically, King draws from film noir and the kind of violent, pulpy crime comics that were popular before the initiation of the Comics Code, as well as the violent and stylized work of Chester Gould.

In the first issue, King touches on classic tough guy/Jimmy Cagney tropes and dialog in a story about a contract killer whose words contradict everything he does. As a killer, everything he says is a lie, as he creates the same "shitty", violent world that he decries after he's murdered someone. At the same time, he's a family man who regrets telling his girlfriend to get an abortion but is happy that she didn't. The scenes at his "office" where he awaits an envelope giving him his instructions (grotesquely "birthing" through an oily slot in the ceiling) are visceral and fascinating, as King drops in cryptic details that are nonetheless ignored by his protagonist, who is simply interested in a paycheck and an assignment.

The second issue features a freed prisoner who immediately starts killing people out of revenge and also for no really good reason. While he is loathsome, he's not much less unpleasant than the cops we meet in the story. The third issue features a crazy story about city-wide blackouts and a food shortage that ensues. We meet a thug walking the streets looking for a meal, as well as an eccentric millionaire who doesn't understand why the power is out and why he's run out of food. Their inevitable meeting is both grim and funny, as neither man can comprehend the other in any meaningful way. This proves to be a volatile mix, as the poor man kills the rich man in a twist worthy of an EC comic. King extracts a remarkable amount of facial expressiveness for an artist whose work uses such a minimalist approach.

The fourth issue features a more complex narrative and in many ways is the most nihilistic of King's stories. We meet "Cop Lopez", a young police officer who's told to drive while Hoolihan, a hilariously and capriciously vicious squad commander, is tracking down a killer. Hoolihan commands Lopez to kill the killer in cold blood after they track him down and then tries to pin it on him afterwards in a speech that is so blithely disingenuous that it's practically a warped comedy routine. Lopez reacts by storming out, acting much like the Russell Crowe character in L.A. Confidential. The casual corruption and racism of that film pervades this story, but King's work is far more satirical in nature. That can be seen in an ad for Crime World in this very issue, which features more casual police brutality that will never be addressed in this setting. In King's Crime World, the cheap value of human life is played in an absurdist manner, drawing the darkest of laughs by giving violence a slapstick quality while never allowing the reader to forget that the violence is horrible and senseless. That's true of whether a dangerous criminal or a police officer is committing it, because King depicts their rationalizations (if they even have one) as being equally flimsy.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Brit Comics: More From Rob Jackson

Since starting to review British comics in earnest recently, I've received a bunch more in the mail. That included a couple of new things from the highly prolific Rob Jackson, who does some of my favorite genre comics these days. His Slaves of the Megapode has a brilliant high concept: a detective and a forensic investigator investigating murder during the Roman Empire. Indeed, the first issue of this story is even subtitled "An Octavian Columbas Adventure", and it contains all of the elements that make a genre story effective while adding huge dollops of Jackson's quirky sense of humor.

Columbas and his assistant/slave Quinceps (hilarious name choice!) were sent to investigate a mysterious set of murders and disappearances in a remote province. The way Jackson incorporates police procedural cliches with Roman practices like tortures and crucifixions is hilarious and off-putting, especially with regard to how matter-of-factly he treats them. The duo eventually uncover a bizarre local cult, go undercover and discover that the locals worship a supernatural being called the Megapode. The first issue serves to set up the world and establish the conflict, just as Octavian is drugged. As always, the minimalist yet expressive line of Jackson is more than sufficient to establish each character and their world; he's well-settled into that style and never wastes a line.

UPDATE 8/11: I just got the second and third issues of Slaves of the Megapode, and what's interesting about it is just how closely it actually wound up hewing to police procedural shows. The comic isn't so much about the supernatural as it is about narcotics, government corruption, conspiracy and murder. At the same time, this comic kept getting funnier despite staying firmly within its own world and rules. This may be my favorite Jackson comic ever.

The second issue of RhiZome, the sci-fi anthology series Jackson co-edits with Kyle Baddeley, doesn't go as far with its interesting ideas as it could have. It's inspired by British underground comics, but there are also flashes of EC comics and Heavy Metal to be found as well. For example Baddley's comics are usually challenging and unpredictable. In RhiZome, he offered a slighly weird ditty about a bizarre chiropractor and a by-the-numbers sci-story about a group of warlike aliens traveling to find a new home. Baddeley seems to be holding back a bit in this anthology, and it doesn't help make it any more interesting. The same goes for Nick Soucek's ecology tale, about a ship going forward in time, only to find all life has been wiped out in the ocean. It's too direct and on-the-nose a story.

Tyler Stafford's "Leera" channels Moebius in another time travel story, this time mixed with post-apocalyptic settings. What's interesting is that there's another major shift in setting after the initial plot is set up, and this leads to an intriguing ending. Jackson's own "Dan Smith" serial continues to be wonderfully strange in a slow-burning manner. This issue positioned Dan (who suspects that he's working with a clone) first as a detective (following the other Dan around) and then as a potentially delusional mental patient, until he's rescued by yet another Dan. The hilarious conceit of the clones talking themselves into thinking that they don't much look alike is one of my favorite aspects of the serial. Dave Huxley's smudgy "The Company" works because of the way he creates atmosphere with his heavy pencil. That air of paranoia is thick in the way he adds so much grey in this story of a man who discovers an error so grave at his company that he's eventually hunted down, even if he doesn't understand the implications of the mistake. John Robbins' short story about a man with mental powers that mimic a computer keyboard's is typically horrific and odd, though I would have preferred to have seen it as a comic. All told, Rhizome has potential to be an interesting serial, but I'd like to see its artists cut loose and really get weird.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Fundraisers: Reklaw, Budnik

A couple of artists whose work I admire are doing modest fundraisers to get new books in print.

Jesse Reklaw's going to have his new book, LOVF, published by Fantagraphics. However, he's essentially proving them with the means to get this complicated, full-color freakout of a book in print as a sort of pre-order, including shipping costs and art supply costs. It will also give him enough money to finish the last forty pages of his book. His recent Couch Tag and the LOVF minicomic were both excellent and emblematic of an artist doing the best work of his long career.

Kevin Budnik is another autobio cartoonist whose work to date has been impressive, especially as he writes about his body image issues, eating disorder problems and anxiety. His modest kickstarter will collect his webcomics into a volume called Old Gum Wrappers and Grocery Lists.  Check it out.