Gather round, folks, as my colleague Kenny offers us up another of his Did You Miss Me? columns, where he focuses on comics work which may not get as high a profile as others and is too easy to slip past your comics radar but are often worth your time:
Ok I was going to do this regularly, but – well, no excuses. I am now going to do this sort of review thing weekly – if for no other reason it may get me to read the books my living room is currently drowning in. I was going to pick a couple of titles to mention and then realised they were both from Buenaventura Press so I thought why not kill multiple birds and review all their recent output in a oner.
Alvin Buenaventura started his association with comics (far as I can tell) as a publisher of expensive prints. He has now evolved into an increasingly important outlet for alternative cartoonists to get their work into print. This past few months seem to have had a crammed publishing schedule so here goes at taking a look at what has appeared from this rising star of Indy comics publishing.
“Adrian Tomine New York Sketches 2004” and “Private Stash”
The first two items certainly belong, more easily, to when the publisher was producing prints – being as they are, in effect, mini print portfolios. Both “Adrian Tomine New York Sketches 2004” and “Private Stash” present a series of prints in a concertina format: the Tomine has 15 and ‘Stash’ 20. Each print is 7×7″ square and folded so they can presumably be easily cut for display. Both have outer sleeves and ‘Stash’ has an illustrated plastic wallet, as opposed to ‘New York’ and its plastic bag, to house everything inside.
If you are a fan of Adrian Tomine you may find these sketches a must have, but for me this was a pretty slight effort. Not that they aren’t lovely sketches – they are; but on their own they lack what I, as a fan, would have liked to see to draw me into the whole thing. If the prints had been presented with something as small as a 4 page leaflet written by Tomine explaining his sketching technique, instruments used, whether they were coloured ‘on the hoof’ or later from memory, amusing anecdotes whilst making them etc – the product would have been transformed. I know that other artists would have loved that info. A friend of mine, who is no slouch herself, happened to be visiting as I looked through this and loved the sketches but was frustrated by the lack of info. Maybe next time Mr B.
“Private Stash” suffers from the same lack of exposition – it all really needs something to give it a context. Still, having said that, there are some lovely drawings here. Alvin has persuaded some modern greats to produce a fantasy female character for this updated version of the Victorian private stash. Of course in those days the images would have been ‘pornographic’ and here they certainly don’t try to be. Depending on your tastes you will like or loathe these I’d imagine in roughly equal number. For me the Jaime Hernandez, Mitch O’Connell, Sammy Harkham (mainly because it so doesn’t care about being a true pin-up) and Ron Rege Jr are the loveliest – many will think otherwise.
Both these items retail for $24.95 – and I guess herein would lie my biggest gripe about both products. I don’t know how much it costs to commission pieces from the artists concerned and I guess the print runs on both can’t be enormous but this just seems too much money. I’m not a printer myself but do deal with them a lot in my job, this looks like all the prints are printed on one piece of (admittedly very nice quality) paper and then folded. It isn’t the biggest piece of paper, it doesn’t use unusual inks or processes – I just don’t see where the manufacturing cost is. I guess it all gets eaten up giving the distributor and retailers their share. Maybe in the future Alvin should run these as Buenaventura only web exclusives – without the distro costs they might be able to come in at the $15 max, or so, they are worth.
Spaniel Rage – Vanessa Davis
When I was growing up, and before I ever saw a colour US comic, I existed on a diet of ‘Smash’, ‘Pow’ and ‘Terrific’ – 3 comics reprinting weekly, in black and white, the output of early Marvel comics. I loved them – they were the treat of the week when my granddad gave them to us. My sister of course got a girl’s comic – “The Mandy” and whilst I was openly dismissive of such nonsense I was actually addicted to one of its lead strips – I think called “The Legend of Zelda”. It was both beautifully drawn and to me, as a boy, seemed to open up a world of adventure that was bizarrely different – a girl’s world.
I get something of the same feeling when I read Vanessa Davis. Biographical comics have been something of the currency of comics this past 10 years and Davis’s struck me as some of the most openly autobiographical of all. Being as they purport to be her diaries in comic form they truly take you inside the world of a modern women – a world both familiar and slightly skewed to a male reader. That is the joy of this book – it takes you somewhere you don’t know you are going – it meanders and waffles, contemplates and disregards, laughs and cries – and all the time you feel you are getting to know, and like Vanessa more and more.
The art is sometimes lovely, sometimes sloppy, sometimes both at the same time – but always gives the feeling of being a diary entry, a sketch of life caught on one page – a moment in time preserved. We know when we look back at our own preserved moments they aren’t always sharp and shiny – the art and the writing here perfectly reflects that. In Vanessa’s world it seems the glass is often half empty but to read her comics is to come away with a smile, feeling the world’s glass is surely more than half full. By the end you will want to marry her. To use the word from those boyhood comics – Terrific! Check out Vanessa’s Spaniel Rage website to see more excerpts like the one above.
Comic Book Holocaust – Johnny Ryan
‘CBH‘ is the Tourettes syndrome of comics. If you have, on occasion, found yourself unable to suppress your laughter at and voyeuristic compulsion to keep watching a documentary of a troubled youth wandering round a supermarket saying ‘fuck’ to everyone, then Johnny Ryan has the book for you. I’m sure someone could find some deconstructionist method to this madness – but that won’t be me. Sweary, toilet humour and worse. You will laugh despite yourself, you will wish you had Johnny’s brain for a few days, you will struggle to remember why you loved all the comics icons eviscerated here. Of course it is a one note tune – and I wouldn’t recommend reading the whole thing in one sitting – but after you feel you’ve read one too many of Uncle Stan’s platitudinous wafflings about what he brought to comics, this may just be the antidote. Without merit but funny – which just might be merit enough.
Yeast Hoist 12 – Ron Rege Jr
I have to admit I used to hate Ron Rege Jr’s work. Being a long term superhero geek the transition to more Indy fare was facilitated by stuff like, a common experience for many I suspect, Love and Rockets, Charles Burns and Daniel Clowes. Ok it was Indy but it had great draughtsmanship and coherent storylines. It was an easy jump. Then someone gave me a Ron Rege story to look at. I thought ‘what the hell is this’. But something happened – the more I looked at his often wordless, open to many interpretations stories, the characters started to gain a life derived from their consistency. This wasn’t just a guy who couldn’t draw – and when you look at the backgrounds and drawings from nature this becomes obvious – but someone who had found a style he wanted to draw in.
Now I love Ron Rege Jr’s work. Ask me why I can’t tell you – I just know it makes me smile. It seems upbeat, positive, hopeful fun and something we should all be looking at. That said, if you want this year’s essential Ron Rege Jr book, go buy Drawn and Quarterly’s amazing Skibber Bee-Bye, and when you have bought and loved that you will want this latest issue of Yeast Hoist just to get a bit more Rege Jr. This is a slight card covered comic really – at 52 pages including covers it is just enough to bring you a taster of Rege Jr’s sketchbooks and drawing scraps. The material ranges from lovely pastoral sketches at the front to scratchy strips at the back – at times it is haunted by the ghost of Keith Haring at others the influence of Gary Panter looms large. If you are a Rege completist you will want this – if you don’t ‘get him’ you will wonder why the hell anyone ever published this.
Kramers Ergot 6
This has been so widely reviewed I feel it is almost a waste of time to be pointing you at this. Kramers Ergot is an annual (I think anyhow) pulling together some of the best and some of the most challenging comics by editor Sammy Harkham. It seems to be universally loved and praised and parts are great – but is it all? Maybe I’m suffering from the same myopia that led me to struggle with Rege Jr at first but some of this book just doesn’t work for me at all.
First the good stuff – and there is a lot: Ron Rege Jr is there and his stuff is excellent, Sammy Harkham himself contributes perhaps the most narrative driven strip and it is a lovely thing. Vanessa Davis has a few pages – they are drawn as comics so the finishing is way superior to Spaniel Rage, and they are in colour and beguiling. I loved the 30’s cartoon stylings of Suiho Tagawa looking for all the world like Ub Iwerks cartoons on the printed page and at the other end of the scale the intensity of the drawing in the Bold Eagles pieces is something to behold. There are other fine strips by Dan Zettwoch, Martin Cendreda, Tom Gauld (tho I always find myself feeling he is stretching a career from not an awful lot) and James McShane. There is a strip by Chris Cilla which looks like it came out of Haight Ashbury in the ’70’s.
The often wonderful John Porcellino sadly contributes but one page. Jeff Ladoucer’s contribution seemed without meaning to me – but the art itself is some of the most beautiful in the book. Gary Panter is there doing what Gary Panter does – it is both noticeably his work and often more traditionally drafted than for example Jimbo – he remains one of comics’ true originals. Then there is the rest – some of it may even be comics. I can see the occasional loveliness in Marc Bell’s designs – but am hard pressed to pick pleasure from the Hedge Reumann, Shary Boyle or Matthew Thurber pieces. I’ve always had this problem with publications like Blab! also – where the avant-gardist nature of the work totally (for me) invalidates the comics content – if indeed any were intended in the first place.
Still, Kramers remains the must read book for anyone wanting to keep abreast of new comics – and is consistently our bestselling stock Indy title – and there is more to love than dislike. One thing that bugged me – and I’m an ingrate I’m sure for mentioning it – is the way the strips can be found to be by whom. No straightforward index here. You either have to fix the strips you know the artist of and work back or forward from them to discover who drew stuff using the listings at the front of the book or use the art key at the back of the book. Both are very fiddly methods of locating who drew what and just made me feel it was a piece of elitist nonsense requiring me to be part of the club that would recognise all artists on sight. I’m not, it drove me nuts.
Comic Art 8
OK this isn’t really comics at all but comics criticism and history. It still might be one of the best things as a comics fan you could read all year. Todd Hignite has been producing Comic Art for a few years now and right from the beginning it stood out as something different. It was skewed towards seeing comics as art but has the largest church of any of the current comics mags. I spoke with Todd recently as we did an interview with him prior to the release of CA 8 and he seemed like a true fan of comics – all comics – his magazine reflects that interest to explore the field. In our conversation he mentioned how he somewhat regretted the speedy modernisation and drive towards commercialism of the better run comics shops (something we ourselves have been part of). How he still loved the thought of the old store with boxes in the back where there may be undiscovered gems awaiting to be unearthed and pored over in wonder. If you ever wanted to recreate that experience, read Comic Art.
The latest issue since it has come under the Buenaventura wing has been totally revamped – it is now a Comics Journal size mag (with better paper) and has become an annual. The new package is lovely and as Todd says it allows the magazine to breathe, bringing more art and longer articles. If you think you know comics you probably will think you don’t after reading Comic Art. It has 11 major articles ranging from an analysis of Jim Starlin’s Warlock to an investigation into the use of the speech bubble in comics – I told you it was a broad church. Stand outs for me were the long thoughtful piece on artist Richard McGuire – with contributions from Chris Ware and Francoise Mouly. I’ve got to say I’d never thought of McGuire much but this article shows him to be in the first flight of artists working in and around the comics field. It makes you long for the expanded version of “Here” which is briefly touched on.
My second fave was a look at the work of German artist Anke Feuchtenberger (who I’d long admired). Whilst the interview is a little stilted – no doubt due to language problems – this does give some interesting info on her art and work and some of the blown up panels show the true beauty of her strange but assured line. It makes you long for more of her work to be in print in English (tho much of the German material is nearly wordless in the first place). If you read it and are intrigued I’d point you to Bries’ English language versions of the 2 ‘W the Whore‘ books as a great starting point. Articles on S Clay Wilson, Drew Friedman, a terrific Zak Sally strip (publisher of La Mano) and much more are filling out the issue. It is a kaleidoscope of comics – every way you turn it there is something else of brightly coloured wonder to hold your gaze.
To top it all it comes with a little book by Seth which so embodies the philosophy of discovery Todd set out in our conversation that it can’t be mere coincidence. The little book starts with a great little Seth strip about searching out the work of great cartoonists of the past – at yard sales and thrift stores and then goes on to list Seth’s 40 favourite books from his what would appear massive haul. I challenge you not to read this book and not want to run to eBay and start buying some of these. Comic Art only comes out once a year – shame – but it leaves you no excuse to stick down your $20 religiously each annum. If you love comics it is one of the best things you’ll do all year. The other is get a subscription to The Comics Journal.
Next time I might review an anthology or two but more likely whatever spills from the top of the piles and lands at my feet. Keep buying comics.
Kenny Penman is the co-founder of Forbidden Planet International; no-one ever offered him a better job so he is still here.