In 2007, to the notice of probably no one apart from a few of his local Minneapolis-area friends, “outsider” cartoonist David Tea released issue number six of his sporadically self-published Five Perennial Virtues digest-sized series. In 2017, for reasons known only to himself, he’s re-releasing it, plus a bunch of old sketches, under the title of Bronze Table Of The Blade Masters. This is something we should all be very happy about.
The reasons why we ought to be so are hard to quantify, of course, but then so is Tea’s work — eschewing basically every established rule of cartooning more, it seems, out of necessity than any sort of deliberate design, one could fairly argue that nothing happens in this comic, but then it really doesn’t need to in order for it to be interesting, simply because its aesthetic, its construction, its very reason for being is almost impenetrable; it is what it is and it harbors no pretenses toward being anything else. It’s a pure transmission of artistic intent on the part of the person who made it, and he made it because he could, full stop.
I’m not tremendously enamored of detailed plot synopses in my reviews, even for comics that are easily-discernible straight lines from A to B, but details are almost inconsequential when it comes to Tea: if you absolutely must know, the “story” here revolves around our protagonist/author meeting up with two “friends”— one of them being an Octopus, the other a cactus — at a coffee shop, where he proceeds to regale them with a brief historical harangue about the Spartans, declare their table to be the “Bronze” one of the title, and then lead them into adventures we never see and probably don’t matter. So there’s your recap, but it’s not like much of what makes this book so genuinely intriguing stems from the story itself — all of that is to be found in how the story is presented.
Book-ended with new intro and outro pages “delivered” by the trademark FPV symbol, and interrupted at seemingly utterly random points with several pages of slap-dashed sketchbook work, there is an intuitive rhythm to these proceedings that makes no particular logical sense but nonetheless feels right, perhaps in spite of itself — in a world where rules don’t apply, newly-imposed ones will suffice in their place, but it’s not like Tea even bothers coming up with any; his “clip-art” style backgrounds, his entirely-expository dialogue, his curious repeated use of dice as a motif, it’s all just there. And yet, taken as a whole, you can’t envision this work as being anything other than what it is, reasons why be damned.
I can’t claim any special insight into Tea’s creative process, nor do I feel particularly compelled to divine one based on the evidence he may or may not provide in his finished product — I accept this comic, and all of his others, on their own terms, and stand in a kind of quiet awe at the way in which he frankly allows no other choice; the nature of his creativity is such that it arrives to audiences entirely unfiltered and unmediated, necessarily raw, and yet sophisticated in a way that mere technical prowess can never begin to approximate. You hear the word auteur a lot — here is its working definition writ large.
But please, whatever you do, I implore you not to take my word for it (how weird is it for a critic to say that?) — experience this comic for yourself, as unlike most of Tea’s work it’s available outside the Twin Cities (as is the book pictured above, his expanded reprint version of Five Perennial Virtues #2), and should really be filtered through your own individual lens and processed and interpreted by means of your unique sensibilities. You may love this stuff as I do, you may hate it, but either way it’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything else like it.
Bronze Table Of The Blade Masters sells for $6 from — where else? — Domino Books. Order it directly at http://dominobooks.org/fivevirtues6.html
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