You read a headline like that and most likely think, naturally enough, “okay, but which cartoonist?” And then you probably realize, just as quickly, “oh, duh — himself, of course!” Congratulations on being exactly right.
We’ve talked about Cole Johnson’s self-published minis a couple of times here before, and my earnest hope is that we’ll be able to continue to do so for a long time to come, because this is an artist who has staked out a territory all his own by simply doing the kinds of things he does better than anyone else. Longing for times, friends, lovers gone; restlessness of the heart and mind; the transposing of unfocused affection onto life’s “little things”; ennui of the body and spirit — these are all something more than themes “within his wheelhouse,” they are his raison d’etre; his animating passion; his alpha, omega, and all points between. And nowhere does he zero in on them with such exacting precision as in the pages of 2017’s The Cartoonist, a collection of “one-off” short strips that each stand alone, but fit like a comfortable old sweater within the larger oeuvre of his work.
Fluctuating between quietly contemplative autobio (Johnson, or his nameless stand-in, can’t focus on what he should make a long-form “graphic novel” about in one story, misses opportunities to intellectually or emotionally connect with his significant other in another) and quietly contemplative lyrical analyses about lovers who either want the feeling to last forever or can’t let it go after it’s gone, these are powerfully understated (yeah, I know how that sounds, but it’s still the truth) shots of pure wistfulness easily “mainlined” straight from the page, through the eyes, to the heart.
Simply-delineated figures expressed via means of sharp, tight lines in front of austere-bordering-on-blank backgrounds drive the thematic tone home with a kind of graceful honesty, but that’s not to say there aren’t occasional missteps — well, okay, one notable misstep : Johnson’s attempt to channel his inner Chester Brown for his directly-linked “How I Read Your Diary” strips robs them of poignancy and trashes the flow of the collection for a few minutes, but fear not : he quickly reverts to his signature, distinctive cartooning style, and as far as bumps in the road go, it proves to be one that’s at least interesting (if unsuccessful), and easily recovered from. It’s not something I’m eager to see him try again, mind you, but anyone whose work is this consistently smooth is allowed the occasional hiccup. I’m not completely heartless, after all.
You’d have to be yourself not to find Johnson’s modest little comic a thing of eerily sublime beauty, though. Eminently easy to relate to and empathize with, these are stories that carry you away on a cloud to somewhere you already know but feel no one else understands — the place where your dreams, hopes, regrets, and shortcomings all coalesce into something that becomes, by default, an “inner life” : seen by few, understood by even fewer, sympathetically portrayed by nobody in a manner this intuitive and authentic.
The Cartoonist harbors no illusions about shaking you to your core — or about anything else, for that matter — but it does just that nonetheless. Cole Johnson may doubt himself every step of the way — it’s a big part of who he is — but that sure doesn’t mean we have any reason to do the same.
This book gets an enthusiastic “must-buy” recommendation from yours truly. It’s available for $5.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/the-cartoonist-by-cole-johnson/
This review is “sponsored” by — my own damn self, or more specifically, my just-launched Patreon site. If you’d like to receive thrice-weekly updates on the worlds of comics, film, television, and literature — as well as help me continue to do this sort of thing in general — please consider joining up at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse