Small Press Comics Reviews CAKE 2016 Edition
June 17, 2016 at 12:44 pm
Over the past weekend I had the pleasure flying up north for this year’s Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (acronymized as CAKE, which I’ll forgive because CACE obviously doesn’t sound as good and they did serve actual cake). I got to meet up with some friends from Seattle, eat deep-dish pizza and generally putz around on a real public transportation system (glaring at you, Capital Metro). Most importantly, I got to hang out in the gorgeous Center on Halsted and read some excellent mini-comics by some unfamiliar artists. I’d like to thank the CAKE staff and volunteers for organizing the festival but I’d especially like to thank the Center and its community for allowing us to share their space.
I’d also like to briefly advertise for CAKE’s Cupcake Award, “a juried prize that supports the publication of a new minicomic by an emerging artist whose work is primarily self-published.” The award comes with free tabling space at next year’s event, money to print the minicomic and the guidance and support of Caitlin McGurk from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum. Applications are open from now until the end of July.
Anyway, here are my faves from the weekend’s haul.
Goodbye, or the State of Nature: a comik – Ben Passmore
This trilogy in miniature consists, according to the blurb, of “a myth… a parable… and an argument,” and while Passmore eschews the messy aesthetics of xeroxed zines for clean brush-pen lines and storybook pacing, rest assured that his concerns are still just as punk. Over the course of 88 pages, he touches on themes of class and complacency, individualism and isolation, and authenticity and self-deception. If this sounds a bit serious, I promise you that he’s also pretty funny. Passmore prods at our fears and hypocrisies, but he does so with a gentle irony. Without resorting to didacticism, he asks us to consider a better society and how we ourselves would have to change for it to exist. Group sex is offered as solution, but I think that’s meant to be a little tongue-in-cheek.
If only once, If only for a little while & Phylum – Rosemary Valero O’Connell
Trust me when I say that Valero O’Connell is about to break through. During my standard, last-minute google research, I found that she is currently at work on a graphic novel with Mariko Tamaki of Skim and This One Summer fame (and if you’re unfamiliar with those two books, drawn by Jillian Tamaki, I highly recommend them). I shouldn’t have been surprised, given how good the two minis I picked up at the expo are.
If only once, if only for a little while is a slow-building story about friendship and grief set in the lovingly rendered mundanity of a small town. The story’s twist-ending, in other hands, might have come across as mere melodrama but Valero O’Connell’s careful craft invests it with poignancy.
It was Phylum, however, which really caught my attention. Superficially a simpler story than If only once, it showcases her design sensibility, in both its pared-down drawings and story and her printing choices for the book itself. I especially liked the mini’s interior section featuring a smaller booklet stapled inside, where illustrations of a growing mandrake root float eerily outside the sense of time established by the comic’s other pages.
Neither of the comics mentioned above seem to be available for sale online, but they can be read in digital form on Valero O’Connell’s website. Her collaboration with Tamaki probably won’t be out for a long while but I look forward to it.
Murder/Moon – Krystal DiFronzo
This intriguing comic follows a nest of crows (or murder of crows, if you’re nasty) from their day into the night when the mother gets tagged by a scruffy, flanneled researcher. There’s also an introductory “Myth” section where a grinning moon-being shoots some crows with a moonbeam. With minimal action and the lack of dialogue, Murder/Moon reads like a transcribed nature documentary and DiFronzo’s sketchy drawing style further enhances this effect, floating somewhere between cartoon iconography and a naturalist’s observations. I found this hybrid style especially effective in my favorite sequence, where the crows swing on a tree branch for fun (which is a totally cool and real thing I didn’t know they did.) Rather than taking a scientific (and distanced) perspective, I think Murder/Moon asks its reader to experience the book’s contents in empathy with, if not quite from the perspective of, a crow.
Or, maybe they’re ravens.
There Is No Love For A Lonely Soul! – Bred Rohloff
Now, here’s a fun one: 24 pages of madcap soliloquy delivered by a ghost who claims to love you (yes, you, dear reader) but also, unfortunately, wants to kill you. The linework is expressive down to the word balloons and it’s all vibrantly printed in red, blue and purple. The ghost’s noodle arms will probably bring Adventure Time to mind for a lot of people but I’d peg Rohloff’s main stylistic influences as clip art and the lecherous grin of Master Roshi from Dragonball. There Is No Love For A Lonely Soul! is an exercise in manic energy and amped-up expression, a real puppy of a zine that runs around you in circles before finally tuckering itself out. This is a comic that wants you to have a good time and, at least on my end, it delivered.
Dear Amanda – Cathy G. Johnson
Delicate pencils and realistic characters stand out in this vignette about a budding romance between two queer women and an unseen letter-recipient. This is a dialogue-centric comic and, like a lot of great josei manga (say, Erica Sakurazawa), the settings are rendered sparsely, allowing our attention to focus entirely on the rhythms of conversation and the subtleties of body language (the tilt of an eyebrow, a lean towards or away). Dear Amanda feels like a small slice from a timeline, carefully preserved in paper and ink. Belen and Ginette might’ve been a couple you met at a bar by chance, everyone a little drunk, maybe revealing things you wouldn’t tell to someone you’d have to see again — the temporary intimacy of strangers. You feel like you know them and you like them, but you’ll never get the chance to understand them. You’ll always wonder about that one remark and how serious she was when she said it, and how things turned out afterwards. You’ll wonder who Amanda was and why she kept coming up. You’ll hope for the best but you’ll never know.
Weakly Comics Xtra Large Annual – Various Artists
I missed the Kickstarter for this ambitious, experimental anthology late last year so I was pretty pumped to see it on a table at CAKE. The finished book, as promised, features a bewildering array of art styles, printing methods and paper sizes. There’s a pop-up fold-out in the center. There’s also a bookmark, a comment card and an order sheet for fake comics. All of it must have been stapled together by hand. To be blunt, it’s a hot mess and maybe a little hard to read. But it’s also ecstatic in its chaos and exactly the sort of work I love self-publishers for. This book is filled to the brim with exciting (and sometimes conflicting) ideas of what comics can be. I would comment on a few of the individual stories but this column is already running overlong. If you’ve ever sneeringly uttered the phrase “style over substance,” Weakly Comics might not be for you. But me? It’s definitely for me.
Unfortunately, there do not appear to be any copies available online at this time, but there is a tumblr which I’m sure would help anyone interested stay up-to-date on future Weakly projects.