I did not go to Small Press Expo in Bethesda, Maryland. I did, however, go to Atomic Books in Baltimore and pick up this comic called "Swell #1: Open Faced Sandwich," by Juliacks. Normally my comics posts are just me singing the praises of stuff Picturebox put out, but this will be a slight change from that.
First off: Presentationally, this comic is sick as hell. It's 11 by 11, and the version I have has two-color silkscreened covers, which are really gorgeous. More than their aesthetic beauty, there's this charge I get from silkscreened cover comics: It's an incredibly laborious process, and then it's just put out there, for cheap. (This cost five dollars, there are also versions without silkscreen covers that cost $2, which is still a great bargain for the size.) It just feels so open. These comics will inevitably get looked at more than they get bought, flipped through at a convention and retain some finger-oil.The copy I have isn't immaculately printed, there is a little bit of bleed on the blue at the outer edge, which is completely understandable.
The rest of the book follows suit, even though it's black and white xerox, it's just filled with mark-making, and really thought-out and overwrought page composition. It gives off a feeling of passion, of emotion, through the book format. Sometimes it's not intuitively readable, but there's something being communicated.
The thing I've sort of attached myself to about comics, and the idea of cartooning, is that it's writing and it's drawing, each inform the other. This becomes evident with stuff like this, where the lettering is really intense and a big part of the page design, but there's also definitions at work. "Artist" is a pretty broad category, that a lot of people identify themselves as. Identifying as a "writer" is conscribing oneself to a more specialized field. Now, there are distinctions that have sort of emerged- of "literary" comics that tend to work like short stories or movies. In these, a cartoonist is a writer who's using a visual language. There are also "art comics," which is a term usually assigned to artists doing comics, or books, as part of their overall multimedia assault: A comic that could be placed into an art installation. Juliacks is firmly in the latter group, as she does performances and installations based around her comics and the themes contained herein.
I am a writer, as are a handful of my friends. I am also about Juliacks' age. One thing I have talked to some of my friends about in writing is the issue of having things happen, making writing that people want to read for the story being told, rather than the pleasure of simply experiencing the language. The writing becomes closer to visual art in something like this, I think, in how one engages it, and maybe in its emotional effects, different from something with tighter story structure. The thing about Swell: Open Faced Sandwich (which Juliacks says is just part one of a three-part graphic novel) is that there's no real arc to it: Things happen, kind of, but it's all pitched at this single level, of just trying to communicate a feeling. It radiates sincerity, and energy, but there's no pace to it at all as a thing that you read. Compare this to Anders Nilsen's The End, with its stripped down drawings and narration that give way to abstractions that communicate a very pure feeling, or to the way Gary Panter switches up his drawing style in Jimbo: Adventures In Paradise so that by the time you feel like you've come to the end of a long journey. Swell is art-comics as a really cool thing that, through it's nonstop ecstatic sadness, ends up just giving you more of a feeling for the artist making it rather than the emotions the story is ostensibly meant to convey. (The story is about a girl who dies, told from the perspective of her friend. The characters are teenagers, I think.)
Juliacks will probably get better. She is apparently working on a drawing collaboration with Matthew Thurber, who I think is an awesome cartoonist: He shares a love for mark-making, patterns, and psychedelic effects with Juliacks, but his stories are funnier, more fantastical, and actually just very recently got a lot more readable as traditional comics. Meanwhile, she's being championed by Austin English, who is much less talented at drawing, and also tries just to communicate feeling by crappy drawing and using crayons. Both of these people are probably more interested in art-comics of a recent vintage than the history of sequential art as a whole, which is maybe a weakness. Most of the "art comics" people I like (the Picturebox dudes) are pretty well-versed and immersed in mainstream comics and are just able to turn it inside out and disregard whatever. In some ways there's more freedom and coolness in ignorance, and I don't know if you actually need to know about that stuff to make good comics. It could just be a question of youth. My writer friends and I have read all sorts of books, and tie our inability to tell stories to our inability to really self-direct and control our own lives.
Oh, and since this post immediately follows one about the political apathy of Baltimore art kids, I must applaud the fact that this comic has a sticker on its inside cover giving out her website and saying "please vote!" Again, if I am going to draw a parallel between that level of political engagement and the emotional engagement and empathy that leads to creating strong work, that sticker feels sincere in the same way the printmaking and patterns all do. You could do worse things with your money than support this lady.
Now would be a good time to talk about Closed Caption Comics 7, but it's hard to identify all the artists, and I would like to see more of most of their work. Noel Freibert's comics seem pretty stupid though.