Josh Frankel’s “Grim Nutrition” : Eat Up!

I’ve reviewed Josh Frankel’s work on this site before — specifically his full-length comic Eccentric Orbits from last year — and while it’s true that his traditional sensibilities lend themselves well to long-form genre works, it seems to me that where he really shines is in the mini game, where his old-school panel construction and smartly humorous take on tried-and-true tropes always combine for a refreshingly unpretentious experience. Simply put, when you read a Frankel mini, it reads like something made by someone for no other reason than they love the form, and that’s the best reason to put pen to paper that I can think of.

His latest self-published number (that I’m aware of, at any rate), a punchy eight-pager titled Grim Nutrition, is about as perfect a distillation of what makes his art, if not unique per se, at the very least special, and in a pinch maybe even really special : we’ve seen tales of solitary figures crossing post-apocalyptic wastelands to obtain food too many times to count before, but Frankel uses that foreknowledge to his advantage, cleverly stopping just shy of subverting readers’ expectations and opting instead for the more difficult task of playing into them while simultaneously tipping them off-kilter just enough to bring the element of surprise, as well as the element of fun, back into the equation.

This being a very short-form project — and a wordless one at that — I’m hesitant to give away too many of the specifics, but it’s probably not too big a “spoiler” to say that our protagonist’s quest to fill his belly is easier than we’re perhaps accustomed to seeing, but his problems in no way end there. Hell, it’s fairly obvious that they don’t even end when the comic itself does, and that’s a sure sign that there is more depth to Frankel’s “world-building” than one would reasonably assume to find in a story of this length. Indeed, one can feel and see the heavy weight of existential pointlessness this character carries on his shoulders, while at the same time appreciating the fact that his getting by for one more day beats the alternative. Communicating all of that in 40 or 50 pages is a fairly remarkable achievement, but doing it in eight? That takes, to use a painfully cliched term, “next level” cartooning skills.

Which, cliche or no, is as apt a description of what Frankel’s got going for him as any. His heavy use of rich blacks, his innately smart and involving compositions, his creative placement of zip-a-tone-esque shading effects, his masterful eye for body language, his backgrounds that fall somewhere between looking rushed and fully detailed — all these combine to form an aesthetic whole that’s in no way outside of the average reader’s experience, but is well above and beyond the standard issue. This is a comic for people who know and like comics, executed with a generous amount of the one thing that’s sadly missing from so many comics — namely, heart.

And who are we kidding? The fact that it doesn’t take itself too terribly seriously doesn’t hurt matters any, either. It would be a reach to say that Frankel adopts an overtly “tongue in cheek” tone, but he doesn’t deliver anything altogether grim (title notwithstanding), either. Again, it’s all about getting a pretty damn delicate balance more or less exactly right, and that is this particular cartoonist’s modus operandi in a nutshell.

Obviously, this comic isn’t going to change your life or knock you for a loop or get you to reconsider everything you thought you knew about the medium, but so what? Making something very good that adheres to pre-established “rules,” but is in no way slavishly beholden to them, is as tricky a task in its own right as re-inventing the comic book wheel. We should all be glad that Frankel respects his craft, and his readers, enough to make sure that even his most purportedly “inconsequential” projects are, in fact, anything but.

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Grim Nutrition i available for $3.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/grimnutrition.html

Review wrist check – Mitch Mason “Chronicle,” in a dial color they call desert sand, riding one of MM’s own suede straps.

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