Small Press Comics Reviews July 2016
July 19, 2016 at 11:40 am
Today I’m playing catch-up with some zines from the last few months which I didn’t have the time to write about before. Thank you, zines, for your patience.
Frontier #12 – Kelly Kwang
The latest issue of publisher Youth in Decline’s quarterly monograph series (spotlighting Canadian illustrator Kelly Kwang) exists somewhere between sketch-zine, fashion mag and tour pamphlet for incoming freshmen. Its subject is the “Space Youth Cadets”: intensely hip boarding school teens with JRPG stats. Pages of speculative fashion and aestheticized digital icons alternate with meditations on friendship and SYC miscellania. Despite being set in a fantasy world, Frontier #12 feels deeply personal. The Space Youth Cadets are a fashion statement but they’re also a state of mind. They’re a defensive stance, an unfulfilled longing and perhaps a small prayer of self-affirmation. The Space Youth Cadets, like so many of us on- and offline, are lonely. One page shows a cadet pressing their face into a face-shaped bubble representing the internet while a pop-up above them warns of “connectivity issues”. Another page shows a texting couple trapped in separate digital windows with the words “space is infinite”. The puns are obvious and sweet and sad. Kwang’s zine is a tribute to the real impact unreal spaces can have on our lives, whether they lure us deeper into ourselves or guide us outwards into space.
Understanding the Young, Dumb and Unwilling – Matt Houston
In this parodic exposé on American infants, the reader is cast into the role of an unseen interviewer sent to question an “authority in the baby community”. This nameless toddler guides you through the basics of babyhood, as well as gamely answering queries about his home life and his split feelings about the baby constituency for which he is both speaker and advocate. Most of the book’s pages are self-contained compositions, illustrating either a moment from the tour or one of the baby’s speaking points in grayscale pencil. And while the reader is addressed directly and each view is ostensibly from the first person, the book is filled with flattened perspective and stylistic shifts which show off Houston’s playful sensibilities. Understanding… is definitely (if broadly) satirical and a lot of popular hypocrisies are hit upon in-between poop jokes: the manicured but distant white family, the son who rebels against the father while waiting to assume power, American justice in general. Houston uses the documentary format because he appreciates the central irony of the authoritative voice, that its claim to objectivity is absurd, and he enhances the effect of this pretension by using a baby as his mouthpiece. From the mouths of babes, he suggests, comes more of the same old shit. On the other hand, Houston doesn’t actually seem to care very much about the implications of these hypocrisies or the power structures which support them. His interest is in the comedic value of absurdity and the opportunity to depict fools acting badly. Ultimately, while the political commentary shallows out early, the drawings are fantastic. Houston is one of my favorite illustrators to follow online and this book is a great example of why.
The Experts – Sophie Franz
Curiosity is a tough feeling to inspire on demand. It’s not enough to create a scenario the reader doesn’t understand (which is easy, really), you also have to make the reader crave understanding. Without sufficient curiosity on the part of the audience, a story is just a dry succession of events or images. Other people’s dreams are a perfect example of this: yes, it is weird that you dreamt you were playing doubles tennis with The Rock, your mother and a sweaty frog monster. But, no, I’m not especially curious about why.
Sophie Franz’s The Experts, a minicomic about three scientists in the middle of a lake who have forgotten their original purpose, suffers from this problem. This is a shame because she’s so good at telling her story that I wish I cared more about it. I enjoy the pared-down realism of her drawings and she inks with a gorgeous, impossibly clean line. Her scenes are similarly tight and the dialogue reads as natural. But something is missing. Atmospherically, The Experts occupies the same sort of vaguely spooky, vaguely wacky dream-space of Michael DeForge’s short stories or Daniel Clowes’s Like A Velvet Glove Cast in Iron. But The Experts lacks the generosity of detail which makes a DeForge story fun and her book’s slow, tense pacing is handicapped by its short length (~26 pages). There isn’t enough time for the reader to develop an attachment to the characters and, while not necessarily important for short stories in general, I think it hurts The Experts. Because neither the reader nor the characters understand what is happening, what has previously happened or what might happen, there’s not much at stake emotionally. I’m all for weirdness and mystery for their own sake but The Experts fails to convince me that there’s anything very interesting behind the curtain.
Late Bloomer – Maré Odomo
Please don’t mistake the ‘/’ between “comics” and “poetry” on the cover of Late Bloomer for an ‘&’. Odomo’s work is a deliberate hybrid, resisting the opposing pulls of narrative and pure imagery to circle through and around the emotional spaces of their past. Using only a pencil, Odomo sketches out fragments of memory and explores different ways of relating to their younger self and their younger self’s younger feelings. Melancholy and frustration weigh heavy in these pages, but the sense of nostalgia is also unmistakable. A certain romanticism is unavoidable in an image like 18 year-old Odomo walking through the rain smoking cigarettes, or a hand, delicately rendered, holding a brick phone and a three letter text message (“imu”). However, Odomo’s ongoing negotiation with their past also involves ironic distancing and cheeky humor. How else could I interpret the drawing of tears forming the beginning of “i’m SAAAAAD~” or the two-page spread advertising their paypal address? But, the past isn’t just subject matter in Late Bloomer, it is an object literally visible upon the page. Dated sketchbook pages mingle with newer drawings and scribbled out text is pervasive, allowing the reader to retrace Odomo’s steps in search of the right word or line. Every mark matters, even the mistakes. On alternating pages, these mistakes might be covered up or skirted around or emphasized. But they’re all there. Late Bloomer is a complicated mix of strategies, where cartooning both reveals the author to and protects them from the reader. I don’t feel like I know much about Odomo after reading this (like we sometimes do, or pretend we do, after reading memoirs or interviews). But I feel sympathetic in a sense to the process by which these comics (*comics/poems) came to be, and in that, I think, there is some understanding.