Sunday, September 25, 2011

I didn't attend the Small Press Expo this year, due in part to former travel companion Adam Boysen having left Baltimore for the west coast, but the very passing of the event means that comic book Oscar season is upon us, to use a phrase coined by Mothers News.

The book I am most excited to read is the collection of Matthew Thurber's 1-800-Mice, wrapping up using material previously unpublished. I haven't heard anything about the new material: For the past few years, Jog would write about the show, or someone at Comics Comics, but now that Dan Nadel is the new online editor of The Comics Journal, the fear of "conflict of interest" delays such coverage. The same effect from those former stalwarts applies further, nowadays, to books published by Fantagraphics. That consolidation of power effects a huge chunk of discussion about the comics I would want to read, so all I'm getting our Twitter chirps about how the new Love And Rockets is one of the best comics ever. (Adam Boysen was also the roommate who kept on top of purchasing everything the Hernandez brothers did, so I will have to wait some time to confirm this firsthand.)

I find myself still reading comics of note, one of which is an Eleanor Davis short story in the final issue of Mome. It is a bit of science fiction that feels very contemporary, in a way that seems difficult at this point in time, with communications technology so developed and advanced that telling stories taking place in the modern era functions as science fiction in a certain way. That would be the tactic explored in the last few William Gibson novels, for instance. Other authors attempting to talk about modern communications technology, Youtube videos and G-chat and such, tend to just tell stories dealing with their semi-autobiographical protagonists confrontation with depression and inertia. Miranda July's new film The Future works that territory before moving into magic realism. I was thinking that maybe this strategy emerges because we are living in a science-fictional world, but without any of the narrative thrust of adventure instilled by those pulp narratives. "In a society that has abolished all adventure, the only adventure left is to abolish that society," goes the May 1968 graffiti, but that is not the life being lived by those with iPhones. Davis tells a tale probably familiar to anyone who has traveled back and forth between one of America's metropolitan centers and its more rural areas, but extrapolates it into the future, largely through use of language and semi-psychedelic coloring that looks like it was done using colored pencil. I thought it was great, and am now interested in reading her comics for kids published by major publishing houses that will inevitably share none of this story's concerns but may still succeed on their own merits.

There's ideas in that last paragraph I meant to write in a letter to Matthew Thurber, actually, in response to these Smell Temple posts he's been putting up his blogs, photos of typewritten reviews of science-fiction films, but maybe this post will show up in his Google Alerts. (I would hope he wouldn't have Google alerts but they are a thing that people have.)

Not quite a comic book is Michael Kupperman's Mark Twain's Autobiography: 1910-2010, which develops a tendency towards prose that's been present in recent issues of Tales Designed To Thrizzle, but expanded to book length loses a lot of the dadaist chops that made them what they were. The premise takes it to a lot of territory previously covered by Kupperman, as well as noted admirers like John Hodgman. There's a certain degree of diminished returns for me but certainly I still got a few laughs out of it. He's using the same constellations of humor, but it's not like I do not appreciate a good gaze at the night sky. Have I mentioned before that I don't really like his use of color, and prefer him in black and white or monochome? The book is filled with illustrations and some chapters are comics, all done only with tones of blue, but it's also all drawn in one simplified style, rather than the crazy engraving style look or photorealism that Kupperman sometimes uses for particular effects. Without the appropriation of tropes of 1950s comic books or educational films that marks a good portion of his art, the book could be more accessible to a general audience, one that would be prepared for the humor from Conan O'Brien and Will Ferrell. More of a gag gift than something for a dedicated audience, but the Scott Dikkers gag book You Are Worthless is one of my favorite bits of humor writing, so that's not a completely ignoble goal.

Olivier Schrauwen's The Man Who Grew His Beard is a collection of gorgeously colored comics. Like Brecht Evens, Schrauwen is a Belgian whose sense of color is superior to anyone making comics in North America. It feels handmade, even when computers are utilized, and while Schrauwen is known for utilizing the style of Winsor McKay, all the comics here feel really contemporary. Reading it, I was reminded of the imagery one comes across on 50 Watts, while certain aspects of it reminded me of Steven Millhauser's short stories, to name another fantasist who McKay has influenced. Also like Millhauser, there is a certain familiarity to the structures being utilized- while Millhauser repeats himself, Schrauwen tells the tale of one using his imagination to escape a mundane reality that will be familiar to those who've seen Brazil, or the works of Dennis Potter. But the psychedelia of the drawing goes beyond, and sells the idea thoroughly. It looks phenomenal, and I imagine I will return to it frequently.

Anders Nilsen's Big Questions has been collected, and I bought the deluxe hardcover from Amazon, which I would advise against. The Amazon discount puts it at the cost of buying the paperback from a local store, and the added appendix I was so excited ends up being fairly slight. Support your local retailer! Especially if they are the sort of the place that carried Big Questions as it was being serialized. I followed the serialization until the point where it seemed like an ending was no longer in sight, and the cost of individual issues continued to rise. As someone who read the individual issues, I have a slight quibble with the reformatting: I wish the white-on-black spirograph image found on page 234 was not there, and that the scene that plays out over a page turn on 235-236 was maintained as a spread as it was in the serialization, where it worked beautifully as a continuation to the preceding scene. But the book is good, displaying a completely separate set of strengths on display in Nilsen's monologue comics, the ability to draw the shit out of a scene. Setting, layout, action sequences... The storytelling is top-shelf, totally on a par with any Providence dudes you would name if you agreed with me that those guys are great visual storytellers. I also am reminded of Geof Darrow, if Darrow was less into gore and more into open fields. Total visual poetry. Don't read it too fast. Also I am pretty certain that Nilsen draws these super-detailed backgrounds over and over again, even when he could easily do things animation cel style. People are saying nice things about this book all over the place, including the New York Times, which isn't going to talk about the stupid minutiae that I am half-ashamed of noticing. When this book was coming out I was convinced it would be the next Black Hole and everyone would read it when it was collected and that still seems pretty possible, but it might be too quiet and epic for that sort of ubiquitousness in folks' consciousness, which is to its credit.

Oh yes, there's also a new Optic Nerve out. The last issue came out when I was in college, and I read it although my consciousness was already moving in an "Adrian Tomine is kind of lame" direction. It is interesting how the shift in general comic folks' consciousness has moved in a way to effect him, as a cartoonist. The whole idea of black-and-white comics as indicator of "alternative," arising out of budgetary constraints has sort of changed- That was how Love And Rockets were printed, that was how Eightball was printed, and Tomine's general style of "realistic" drawing fell into the same type of idiom. Now, with so many older comics back in print, half of the comic is drawn in this Popeye-influenced style that is also reminiscent of Sammy Harkham, Jordan Crane, Chuck Forsman, etc. It's a lot looser. And then the other half is in full-color because its a reworking of a strip from Kramers Ergot 7. (The first half is in 1/4 full color, in emulation of Sunday strips in the cycle of newspaper comics.) It is cool, an interesting progression, even if these days I am sort of neutral on the content. I am fairly certain that "Hortisculpture" is a better comic that Shortcomings was, and not just because it is more self-consciously a comic than something that could just as easily be an indie movie. Shortcomings was serialized over the course of my going to college, and when I first read Sleepwalk and Other Stories I was in high school and had not yet read Raymond Carver. Sometimes I think people are not served by being prolific, by having their voice out there too often, a readership can become over-familiar; in other cases a lack of output just reminds the audience of how much time has passed. The comics I am the most excited about are those I have not yet read.