“This Wasn’t What I Had In Mind” When I Picked Up Another Collection Of Diary Comics

Dare I say there’s something refreshing about reading a ‘zine full of pre-pandemic diary comics, heartless as that no doubt may sound?

Certainly, at this point it’s safe to state that we’ve all been affected by COVID-19 to one degree or another, and many a reader of this review will likely have lost a friend or relative to the disease, so perhaps it’s inherently self-indulgent to yearn for a simpler time, and yet — even the simpler times were often not that simple, and if there’s one thing that Thomas Lampion’s 2019 self-published diary comics mini This Wasn’t What I Had In Mind reminds us of, it’s that the “good old days” had their problems and challenges, as well.

One of them, however, was most assuredly not a world under medically-necessitated lockdown, and as a result the various personal challenges he’s struggling with in and around April of 2019, which is when the comics in this ‘zine were written and drawn, somehow seem — I dunno — surmountable in a way that they likely didn’t at the time. Not that he could have foreseen that while he was making this stuff or anything, mind you.

Still,. many cliches are based on at least a kernel of truth, and “timing is everything” is one of them. Which is not me saying that this collection would have been any less impactful and/or resonant had I read it at the time of its publication, no siree, but what I most assuredly am saying is that it registers differently now — and perhaps even more differently than it would have otherwise simply because readers (myself included) of Lampion’s superb 2020 graphic memoir The Burning Hotels know what a 180 life served up to him following events depicted in this modest little publication. That being said —

This is a work that certainly stands proudly on its own two feet as a document of an earlier, no-less-transitory phase in Lampion’s life — a period marked by the culture shock of a return to his then-home of Philadelphia after spending an extended period abroad in Russia and the breakup of a long-distance relationship with his boyfriend in San Francisco, so there’s definitely an over-arching feeling of rudderlessness and unease and perhaps even confusion to these diary entries, one that is ever-present on a daily basis but that really hits home when they’re all read in succession. Lampion excels, however, at communicating uncertainty, and actually seems more comfortable relating tales of life’s various and sundry crossroads than he does its straight lines, so what we’re getting here isn’t so much a dry recitation of events as they happen as it is an emotional record of how they made him feel — which may seem like a small distinction, admittedly, but trust me when I say it makes all the difference in the world.

Faithful readers of this site will already be familiar with my affection for Lampion’s cartooning, but what took me aback upon seeing this is how little difference there is between stuff he produces quickly and material he’s clearly spent a lot of time on, at least on a purely stylistic level. Yes, these drawings were obviously scrawled out with a minimum of advance planning, but Lampion’s skillful use of cross-hatching, his expressive faces and body language, and his mastery of digital texturing effects are all present and accounted for in these pages — and the daily production schedule affords the strips a level of immediacy that more than compensates for their entirely-understandable lack of “polish.” I’m not trying to tell you that this comic looks “as good ” as, say, The Burning Hotels, but hey — if you liked the art in that book, you’ll find very little by way of “letdown” here.

Also, last but certainly not least, this comic is funny. That may sounds strange given that a lot of the material is quite “heavy” by nature, but Lampion excels at finding a kind of humane and gentle humor in all things, that little nugget of relatability that can make any reader nod their head in agreement and crack a knowing smile. It’s one more added “plus” that elevates his diary comics work above that of most of his contemporaries — and that raises this ‘zine from “sure, may as well check it out” to “must-buy” status.

Sure, it goes without saying that there really is no such thing as the “good old days” — but any day you get a chance to read a Thomas Lampion comic is a very good one indeed.

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This Wasn’t What I Had In Mind is available for $5.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/this-wasnt-what-i-had-in-mind-diary-comics-by-thomas-lampion

Review wrist check – Praesidus “Tom Rice’s Lost Watch Of D-Day” black dial model riding its factory-issue brown canvas strap. “Homage”-style watches are all the rage these days, and I’ve got a few of them myself, but this is the only straight-up replica timepiece in my collection and has quickly become a new favorite everyday “beater” thanks to its simple, clean look and its amazing-for-its-price-point reliability.

The Apex Of Anarcho-Sequentialism? Mike Shea-Wright’s “Beeline For The Crafty”

I live by a simple motto around these parts : if it defies classification, description, and rational analysis, then it’s something I want to see. Other critics can give you the lowdown on stuff that can be categorized, labeled, genre-boxed, and otherwise defined — and hey, I do a fair amount of that myself — but when it comes to the stuff that starts somewhere beyond the point where the ability to articulate a traditional critique of it stops, well, that’s the kind of work that’s always going to catch my eye and always going to be something I want to talk about, if only because the very act of talking about it is such a tricky proposition.

Comics is an art form that I feel lends itself rather well to such efforts, simply because the fourth-dimensional construct of time can be fucked with, or even dispensed with altogether, so easily in sequentially-formatted visual language, and because a series of images is almost always going to have a progression to it — even if it needn’t necessarily be a linear one — that “stand-alone” drawings, paintings, etc. are devoid of by dint of their very nature. Stuff happens in all art, but stuff is happening in comics, and the possibilities for both what that stuff can be, and how it can be communicated, are pretty well endless.

This all sounds haughty, I’m sure — perhaps even up its own ass — but when a cartoonist really gets it and subsequnetly commits themselves to going for it, the results can be pretty spectacular. Such is the case with Mike Shea-Wright’s 2018 self-published mini Beeline For The Crafty, and now it’s my solemn duty to live up to my admittedly boisterous claim issued at the outset here of being “your guy” when it comes to critiquing the ostensible un-critiquable.

Actually, I’m tempted to say “sorry for the new word there,” but new ways of relaying information are Shea-Wright’s stock in trade as an artist, and that fact has never been more obviously on display than in this “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink” ‘zine, a kaleidoscopic diaspora of the contents of one person’s conscious and subconscious minds that is part self-generating “feedback loop,” part infinite recursion to its own beginning, part treatise on life’s various stages, and part just plain trippy shit. Shea-Wright borrows liberally from Marc Bell, Brandon Graham, Basil Wolverton, and August Lipp (among others) for his visual vocabulary, but the style here is always and unquestionably his own, as is the purely intuitive placement of — well, shit, everything I guess — within space. Things are cluttered, to be sure, but then so is the jumble inside most anyone’s head, and given that “if it’s in you, then it’s gotta come out” seems to be the closest thing we have to an operating ethos here, I have to say that a traditional layout for this work would ring incredibly false.

Which, I assure you, is not just me making excuses for an inherent sense of inexplicability herein. Indeed, despite appearances this comic really does make perfect “sense.” It’s just that it’s entirely its own kind of sense, which means it’s as fundamentally challenging as it is fundamentally honest. The occasional generational jab aside, there’s little to grab onto here that gives one any sense of a structured theme, but if unstructured themes are more your bag? Then you’ve just hit a gold mine, because this is a comic that is rich in purely interpretive allegory, humor, passion, and even polemic. There’s plenty one could fairly label as gross or weird, maybe even sick or wrong, but anyone that out-and-out fucking square is probably likely to take one look at the cover and say to themselves “not for me, thanks,” — and that’s just as well. Shea-Wright’s not in the business of kow-towing to them — nor, for that matter, to anyone else.

Which could conceivably lead you to conclude that this comic is too arcane to be understood, too hermetically-sealed to be accessible. I can assure, you, however, that nothing could be further from the truth : there’s so damn much going on, and it’s all laid out in such an open and fluid manner, that it’s fair to say there’s a little something for everyone here, and a lot of something for most. And just as one can measure a circle beginning at any given point, you can enter this ‘zine almost anywhere you wish, read it in any “order” you care to, take whatever you want from it, and subsequently exit at any “juncture” — but you’ll be back. And reading it will be a whole new experience all over again.

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Beeline For The Crafty is available for the unconscionably low price of $3.00 from Mike Shea-Wright’s webshop at https://gumroad.com/mikesheaindustries?sort=price_desc

Review wrist check – Monta “Atlas GMT” blue dial model riding a night and forest (that’s dark blue and green for the unpretentious) Chevron strap from Crown & Buckle. I thought the two together might be too much blue, but lo and behold, I think it really works.

Two Of A Kind, But Different (Part Two) : Mike Shea-Wright’s “Beach”

The second of Mike Shea-Wright’s new self-published minis dedicated to celebrating pre-COVID social get-togethers that would now properly be classified as “super-spreader” events, Beach, represents perhaps a greater flight of fancy than its de facto “twin” release, Venue, in that the events depicted in that comic could — indeed, often do — happen pretty much as depicted, while the events depicted in this one really aren’t likely to at all, but hey, what do I know? Maybe Shea-Wright just frequents far more interesting beaches than I do — and maybe you do, as well.

In short, this is a wordless story about an afternoon at a beach that becomes one big naked party and, as such, the goals of the author are perhaps a bit broader here than simply showing the purported “joys” of a large gathering of people : indeed, the “all bodies are beautiful” and “de-stigmatize nudity” messages he’s getting across would be crystal clear even if Shea-Wright didn’t write them out in those exact words on the inside front and back covers, respectively. Which he does. Just, I suppose, in the interest of avoiding confusion or misinterpretation.

All subtlety, then, is out the window in this ‘zine, but that’s okay : this is such an inherently jovial and joyous work that a late-innings rainstorm not only doesn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, it elevates them. As with its companion comic, no words are necessary here to communicate mood, atmosphere, and intent, but unlike that one all activity herein is inherently non-confrontational and in no way tinged with the desperation of people dying to blow off steam or pent-up rage in order to have a good time. Granted, a good number of folks on Shea-Wright’s beach are people you likely wouldn’t be too terribly interested in seeing gettin’ nekkid (although, hey, I guess you never know), but what the fuck? They’ve got the same right to take pride in their bodies as anyone else in theory, they’re only prevented from doing so in practice.

Short, tall, fat, thin, young, old, able-bodied or otherwise, everybody gets in on the good time here — and before you go jumping to conclusions, in the course of events only one couple is seen having a sexual encounter, and it’s about as far from prurient or tawdry as you could conceive of. In fact, it’s as au naturel as anything else going on — so much so that nobody really pays it any mind, and honestly, why should they? As such, then, this provides perhaps the most succinct, if understated, example of the key difference between Shea-Wright’s pair of new comics : if Venue is an idealized version of what life can be, then Beach is an idealized vision of what life should be.

Am I being too grandiose for my own good here? I suppose an argument could be made that I am — and it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But I think the distinctions are worth pointing out and examining because they means that while yes, these comics are linked, they each stand on their own as discrete, self-contained works, as well — which is why I resisted the perfectly natural urge to just write about both of them in one review. They’ve eared the right, in my opinion, to be considered both together and separately.

That being said, I’ll be absolutely blunt and tell you that I think you’d be making a huge mistake if you didn’t buy both. But you certainly needn’t necessarily read them together in one sitting!

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Beach is available for $5.00 from Mike Shea-Wright’s webshop at https://gumroad.com/mikesheaindustries?sort=price_desc

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Two Of A Kind, But Different (Part One) : Mike Shea-Wright’s “Venue”

Chances are that you’re as tired of being cooped up as I am, but I’ll say this much : one of the “net pluses” of the pandemic (sorry, there really has to be a better way of phrasing that, but I’ll be damned if I can think of what that would be right now) has been a creativity and productivity boom among self-publishing and otherwise-independent cartoonists. Most of us are well-familiar with the justly-lauded strips being shared daily on instagram by Alex Graham, Simon Hanselmann, and others, but it’s not like the printed page has been abandoned completely in this “brave” new world, either (indeed, Graham has just collected her Dog Biscuits series in a massive 400-plus-page volume she’s selling through Lulu and the entirety of Hanselmann’s “Crisis Zone” will be released in a single volume in fairly short order from Fantagraphics) — which brings us to Mike Shea-Wright and a pair of thematically-interconnected minis he’s recently finished up (as in, within the last couple of months as I write this) centered around the kind of mass social gatherings that COVID has made unwise at best, illegal at worst.

The first of these, entitled Venue, is about exactly what you think it is (as is true for the second, Beach, but we’ll deal with that in our next review) — a jam-packed rock show at a no-doubt-noisy club. In the interests of full disclosure I should make it absolutely clear that this is the sort of event I stopped having any interest in attending long before life under lockdown (like, two decades before), but hey — I was young once, and still remember (vaguely) both what this kid of shit is like and the admittedly dubious sense of excitement that comes part and parcel with it. I needn’t necessarily have much particular emotional attachment to the subject matter Shea-Wright is delineating, then, in order to appreciate whether or not he captures, and subsequently communicates, the energy and ethos of a live music show.

Cutting right to the chase : he absolutely does. There’s a raw intensity to this ‘zine that is born, I suspect, of both experience and longing — you get a definite sense that he’s been to hundreds of shows like this one, and that he misses them terribly. In fact, what he’s put together here is a celebration of everything about them : the ear-splitting decibels, the sweaty bodies crammed together, the casual violence of the so-called “mosh pit,” the clumsy bathroom hook-ups — it’s all here, it’s all happening, and it’s all as brash and boisterous as you remember.

And that, right there, is the key word : remember. Because this is very much a remembrance of the way things were, back when this kind of insanity made perfect sense. The drawings may be “messy” in the conventional definition of that term, but then so are live music shows, and celebrating the (admittedly subjective) beauty of such messiness is what Shea-Wright excels at. He doesn’t need words for that — indeed, language really can’t capture the feeling he’s going for here, so it’s just as well he doesn’t distract us with any — he just needs passion, and there’s plenty of that to spare in every panel on every page.

Obviously, this is an idealized vision of what Shea-Wright thinks a night out could — hell, probably should — be like, but he gets that across so clearly from the outset that by the time our nameless protagonist (an authorial stand-in, perhaps?) emerges from the show beaten, bruised, and bloody, there’s absolutely no doubt that he’s had the time of his life, to which all I can say is : hey, to each their own, right? Personally, I was reminded more than anything of why I don’t do this kind of thing anymore myself, but the simple fact is that this comic comes as close as I care to come to experiencing a punk or hardcore show in the flesh one more time, and that means that Shea-Wright has crafted something tactile and true and probably even timeless here.

No, I absolutely won’t go see your band — but hey, I’ll happily check out this comic again anytime.

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Venue is available for $5.00 from Mike She-Wright’s webshop at https://gumroad.com/mikesheaindustries?sort=price_desc

Review wrist check – Seaborne Trading Co. “Sea Venture.” This is the “sunset bezel” model riding its factory-issued aqua blue NATO strap.

A View Of A Life Gathering “Dust”

Occasionally I’ll get a comic submitted for review that’s a couple years old but still in need of more publicity than it’s received to date, and such is the case with John Carvajal’s self-published mini Dust, a precisely-crafted and insightful little number that, for whatever reason, appears to have flown beneath almost everybody’s radar. Yeah, I know, the small-press landscape is a crowded one, but trust me when I say : Carvajal’s work pretty much always stands out from the crowd, and this is no exception.

There are some sci-fi tropes and trappings on offer here — robots, for example, seem to be a ubiquitous feature in folks’ homes — but at its core this is a story about coping with loss and grieving, about how we channel our energy into strange and bizarre outlets as a form of release, only to have said outlets become obsessions — the obsession, in this case, being a recent widower’s striving to achieve the impossible : a completely dust-free home. It’s as crazy as it sounds, but also as entirely logical : I mean, people who have been married for a long time and have their spouse die do frequently find themselves with a lot of free time and no idea what to do with it.

There’s another layer to this narrative that’s equally intriguing, and frankly equally harrowing, as well, though, and that’s how this man’s adult daughter copes with watching her remaining parent losing his marbles. She’s sympathetic on the one hand, but understandably worried as can be on the other, and Carvajal manages to navigate this emotionally complex terrain with an admirably deft touch, which is precisely what material of this nature requires. There’s some gentle humor liberally interspersed throughout, too, which keeps things from becoming as morose as they may end up being in less skilled hands, but on the whole this is a comic with a very definite air of mourning about it — for both the dead and the living.

As far as the art goes, this is a noticeably more stripped-down brand of cartooning than seen in Carvajal’s other works such as Scraps and his recently-published graphic memoir Sunshine State, and the bare-bones aprooach matches the emotionally raw tone perfectly — in fact, getting “too fancy” with things would, in my view, ring both false and hollow. Solid figure drawing, expressive faces, and subtle body language are what’s called for here, and this comic delivers on all three fronts. Just as there’s not a false of extraneous line of dialogue to be found anywhere in these pages, there’s not a false or extraneous line to be found anywhere in the drawings, either. That’s a sure sign of a cartoonist both confident in their abilities and perfectly in tune with their own subject matter.

At first I had some minor quips with moments that seemed “out of character,” but the more I thought it about the more I realized that, hey, we’re talking about grieving here, and what does being “in character” even have to do with it? In fact, drifting away from the person your loved ones thought you were — and that you may have even considered yourself to be — and becoming someone almost unrecognizable is so often part and parcel of coping that consistency of characterization would run counter to how things actually are, so points again to Carvajal for “keeping it real” by showing us how unreal it can be to try and come to terms with personal tragedy. And while the purple “spot color” that occasionally makes an appearance may seem curious, its placement almost always makes a sort of intuitive sense, so — what can I say? I don’t have any real gripes to regale you with here, even when it comes to things I initially thought I might gripe about.

So, yeah — this is a very special little comic indeed, one nearly flawless in both presentation and execution, and instantly memorable upon reading. It’s a shame it didn’t garner a ton of accolades when it first came out, but seriously — better late than never, am I right?

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Dust is available for $5.00 from Neil Brideau’s Radiator Comics distro at https://www.radiatorcomics.com/shop/minicomics/dust/

Review wrist check – Raven “Trekker 39” yellow dial/black bezel model riding a Chevron strap from Crown & Buckle in black.

Two From Ryan Alves : “Bubblegum Maelstrom” #1

I’ve long been of the opinion that single-creator anthologies are something that’s in far too short a supply these days, but I’m pleased as can be to see Ryan Alves has thrown his hat into the ring with Bubblegum Maelstrom #1 from Awe Comics, a solid collection of six short strips, most boasting full painted color, that pleasingly concludes on a “Continued Next Issue” note. Which means, of course, that this is a good enough comic that you’ll be hankering for more.

Still, it’s bad form in the extreme to begin at the end, so let’s back up a bit here : it starts as life itself does, with fucking, and continues apace through a particularly grotesque birth, followed by an equally grotesque bio-dystopia, then on into a Bat-spoof, and from there makes its way through mutant plant growth, just plain mutants doing battle across a canyon, and fire-farting birds in conflict with man and, well, mutants again. There’s beauty in all this ugliness and squalor and devastation and natural austerity, to be sure, but sometimes you really do have to work damn hard to find it.

Still, who isn’t up for a challenge every now and then? And while revisionist takes on The Book Of Genesis and on Bruce Wayne and Alfred and on the post-apocalyptic genre in more or less its entirety may seem to only fit together in the most vague of conceptual terms, in point of fact one story flows into the next here quite nicely, albeit surprisingly. Most are self-contained — barring the Bat-thing, which is an except from Alves’ daring Moustache newspaper broadsheet, previously reviewed on this very site and which I expect to see further serialized in subsequent issues — but the linkages between them range from the oblique to the far less so, the end result being that the entire package has a definite holistic bent to it. I can’t say whether this is by accident, design or, more than likely, a bit of both, but it’s there plain as day and that sense of cohesion is part of what makes this, as the kids say, “next level stuff,” indeed.

The other major contributing factor to that makeshift designation is, of course, the art — Alves has never, in my experience as a reader, been one to fuck around, but here he imbues everything with an expertly-achieved blend of the lush and the ominous, the delicate and the foreboding, the sacred and the profane. Horrific monstrosities juxtaposed perfectly in space against rich landscapes, with no shortcuts taken and no detail spared. He’s playing for keeps in every panel on every page, a palpable effort to make each image genuinely memorable on clear display throughout.

And yet, there is a real sense here that we may just be scratching the surface — which, as far as opening salvos go, is in no way a bad thing. Alves brings a cinematic approach to his pages, his eye — and, consequently, that of the reader — alighting on elements that enhance mood as much as they advance narrative, and while some of the choices he makes in that regard are perhaps bizarre on a liminal level, on a sublininal one they all make a kind of intuitive “sense.” As easy as these strips are to follow along with, then, don’t rush them — you’ll be missing out on a lot of the fun if you do.

Yes, I did say fun — there’s plenty of it to be had amid the parade of degradation and depravity here. Alves is dead serious about his craft, to be certain, but there is a playful tone to much of this comic that makes it perhaps all the more disconcerting for that fact. There are shocks and stomach-churns in more than generous supply, but how seriously you decide to take them all? That’s entirely up to you. For my own part, I was horrified at how much fun I was having, but also had fun with the sheer depths to which I was horrified. If that seems inherently contradictory, all I can say is — read the comic. I think you’ll feel the exact same way.

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Bubblegum Maelstrom #1 is available for $12.00 from the Awe Comics Storenvy site at https://www.storenvy.com/products/31352110-bubblegum-maelstrom

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Two From Ryan Alves : “Moments With Mo’Peaches”

You know the old saying — “change is the only constant.” Yet most changes are slow and inexorable things that occur over protracted periods of time, barely visible at all from moment to moment. You likely don’t notice if you put on ten pounds over the course of a couple of months, for instance, but a friend who sees you at the beginning of those couple of months and again at the end will likely be biting their tongue to prevent themselves from saying “hey, looks like you’ve gained a little weight” — unless you’ve got friends like mine, that is.

One of the nice things about cartooning, though, is that it can be used to fuck with time, even absent the stereotypical “Later—” caption box. Events that occur over the course of a few panels can translate to mere moments of “real time,” or to several months. The clock and the calendar are well and truly just grist for the artist’s sequential storytelling mill — all of which brings us to Ryan Alves’ self-published 2014 mini Moments With Mo’Peaches.

Simply and ingeniously formatted as a series of three-panel “gags” displaying transformations, metamorphoses, and transmogrifications large or small that either happen to, or are engendered by the actions of, our vaguely monstrous protagonist Mr. Peaches, they’re all good for a chuckle on the surface, but scratch beneath it and you’ll see some ambitious formal experimentation taking place right before your eyes. That’s because the act of confining himself to a rigid and unyielding structure gives Alves plenty of creative freedom to explore the narrative intricacies of said structure, and to press his metaphorical “fast forward” button either once or twice. Everything here is a progression, but how rapid a progression we’re talking about changes from strip to strip as surely as the primary colors Alves utilizes for each of them. It’s a wild ride — or, rather, series of rides — that he’s taking us on here, but at first glance you could be forgiven for thinking it’s all pretty standard stuff.

Which, I guess, on the one hand it is — but teasing out the inherent complexities of the most basic “Cartooning 101” exercise is perhaps what Alves is aiming to do here. I’m not a qualified mind-reader by any stretch of the imagination, but speaking as someone who tries his level best to engage fully with any work, what I can say is that the effect of these short wordless yarns, especially when viewed in succession with a deliberately blank page between each, is to establish a very definite rhythm that goes something like “status quo, big change, new normal,” followed by a “hard” break to take in what’s just happened before moving on to the next oddball scenario. It’s a little weird, but it works — as do the strips themselves.

As the images included with this review make plain, this is also a horizontally-formatted publication, and while this decision may have been nothing so much as a practical consideration, it also plays into the overall experience by lending the proceedings a kind of fluidity that, let’s face it, a “two panels with one below” or “one panel with two below” vertical orientation would necessarily lose. Breaking up that flow with an empty reverse side to every page certainly breaks that flow, but again, within a couple of pages this establishes itself as part of the overall rhythm of the work. It’s a curious enough choice on Alves’ part, admittedly, but I’d be lying if I said it was anything less than utterly effective.

Which isn’t a bad way to summarize the entire project, really. Maybe it shouldn’t work, or maybe it’s such a stripped-down exercise that it can’t help but work, but at the end of the day who am I to quibble with the fact that it does? Likewise, while it could be fairly argued that I may be overthinking this whole thing, I can just as easily see a case to be made for the proposition that I haven’t thought about it enough. I’m not gonna split hairs — all I know is that this unassuming little ‘zine does precisely what it set out to do. Whatever that may be.

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I’m not sure where — or even if — prospective readers can obtain a copy of Moments With Mo’Peaches, nor do I have any clue as to its price, but a good place to start would probably be by heading over to Ryan Alves’ website, which is htttp://livinginmethane.weebly.com

Review wrist check – Squale “1521 Onda” aqua blue dial model riding a Zodiac camo caoutchouc rubber NATO-style field strap.

I’ve Seen The Future And It Looks A Lot Like “Spiny Orb Weaver” #1

I hardly think I’m making news here by informing all you good readers that the economic landscape for small press comics and self-publishers is absolutely brutal right now — and by that I mean even more brutal than usual — but there are still plenty of people making a go of it by means of every distribution and financing mechanism you can think of, the most popular being crowd-funding and online serialization. It’s no stretch to say that some of the most talked-about comics of the so-called “pandemic era” have been instagram comics, and that platforms such as Kickstarter have afforded many a cartoonist the ability to have their work see print even when their own bank accounts were hovering near rock bottom. There are, however, other less-utilized means of hustling up the money necessary to produce a comic, and one that I’m frankly surprised isn’t utilized more often in the local arts grant — which brings us to the book under our metaphorical lens today, Spiny Orb Weaver #1.

Edited by Neil Brideau and published under the auspices of his Radiator Comics imprint, this new series was funded by The Ellies, a Miami-based visual arts award, and as such the idea behind it is to promote the burgeoning South Florida cartooning scene — but Brideau has found an ingenious way of expanding his talent pool without stepping outside the bounds of his tight-by-design remit, to wit : each issue will feature a cover and lead story by a local artist, followed by an interview with them, and then the final few pages are devoted to a memoir-based “backup strip” by someone who used to call the area home but has since moved on. These are, then, all South Florida comics — even the ones made by cartoonists who don’t live there. Heck, even the title of the publication has a local resonance, the Spiny Orb Weaver being the name of a spider native to the region.

The spotlight of this first issue falls squarely on a name that’s new to me, Miss Jaws (or Jessica Garcia, as her birth certificate would have it), and while her story’s central trope of a highly social pet (in this case Max, the dog, even talks) helping his owner, DJ, overcome her own social anxiety and connect with her neighbors is an admittedly obvious one, it’s presented in an interesting and agreeable enough manner to make even a cynic like myself find the whole thing reasonably compelling. This is largely down to a combination of factors, most notable among them being that Miss Jaws writes an incredibly authentic protagonist, but let’s be honest : the theme of personal isolation in a crowded city is eminently relatable at present, to the point where even the most social of butterflies probably has felt a little bit of what the ostensible heroine of this strip does. Points, then, for timeliness, for solid scripting, and for eschewing an easy, saccharine take on complex psychological subject matter in favor of a far more subtle, considered, and naturalistic approach. I liked the story, and I really liked the art : Miss Jaws utilizes every page all the way to the margins and infuses her fundamentally solid figure drawing with a notable degree of personality by means of well-chosen facial expression and body language “cues,” then tops it all off with expert gray-tone usage that really captures and sustains a specific mood from start to finish.

What I found perhaps even more interesting, though, was Brideau’s interview with the artist, which handily covers the basics for Miss Jaws “newbies” like myself, but then goes the extra mile by delving into her process, sure, but more crucially and substantively her artistic goals, ideals, and concerns, giving readers a full picture of an artist with a both a clear purpose and a distinct methodology by which she seeks to communicate it. The next comic I see with her name on it or in it is one that I’ll be buying immediately, as she is every bit the proverbial “talent to watch.”

All of which brings us, finally, to Tana Oshima, a cartoonist who needs no introduction to readers of this site, as I’ve been doing my damndest to champion her work to anyone willing to listen for the last couple of years now. Her short “comic essay” is densely multi-faceted, as is her custom, offering a rumination not just on her time in Miami, but on the concept of what’s loosely defined as “paradise” in a more general sense. Even as a creature of northern climes born and bred I was taken aback by the wistful and contemplative tone of this one, and of course Oshima’s trademark page layouts (four panels with text blocks above static images) are as integral to the overall mood of her work as they are to its pace — Dostoevsky is a major influence on her storytelling, and she’s emerging as comics’ nearest equivalent to him, which I assure you is no exaggeration even if it sounds like one.

What we’ve got here in total, then, is not only a very well-done anthology comic, but one that manages to balance universal themes with those specifically centered around, and bearing the imprimatur of, the atmosphere, flavor, culture, and ethos of a specific part of the world. It’s of South Florida, to be sure, but not necessarily chained to it — but by “going local,” as it were, and financing his ‘zine by means of local patronage, Neil Brideau isn’t just doing the cartooning scene in his area “a solid,” he’s showing one more way forward for comics in general.

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Spiny Orb Weaver #1 is available for $10.00 from the Radiator Comics website at https://www.radiatorcomics.com/shop/minicomics/spiny-orb-weaver-no-1/

Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “George” brown leather strap from their “Performance” series.

“Mothers Tales” : Thomas Lampion’s Generational Journey

I can’t speak to whether Thomas Lampion conceived of and created his semi-recent (as in early 2020, perhaps? Or late 2019?) mini Mothers Tales ( and before you ask, I assume the lack of an apostrophe in the title is intentional) — an impressive riso-printed number, featuring a subtle array of third “spot” colors, lovingly and painstakingly produced by an outfit out of Moscow, Russia called ESH-PRINT — while he was at work on his long-form graphic novel (previously reviewed on this site) The Burning Hotels, or not, but there’s some serious serendipity going on either way. That book, after all, deals with an unplanned move home on the cartoonist’s part from Philadelphia to Appalachia (a town called Hot Springs, N.C., to be specific) and how the same things he was going through in the here and now oddly mimicked and echoed events that took place in his mother’s past, while this shorter-form work has an understandably more narrow scope, concerning itself with family shot stories handed down from generation to generation and the odd sense of comfort that comes part and parcel with them, but it’s no stretch at all to say that a similar tone is both sought after and, crucially, achieved by both.

What we may be looking at here, then, is a kind of “accidental” missing chapter of a book that came later, or perhaps even the metaphorical seed from which an equally-metaphorical tree eventually sprang, but I suppose at the end of the day all that really matters is whether or not this is a ‘zine that succeeds in doing what it sets out to do in and of itself, and on that score one needn’t worry : Lampion is nothing if not a highly purposeful cartoonist, and this is a thoughtful and considered work that succeeds entirely on its own terms.

As a modern master of digital texturing effects, Lampion’s greatest strength, in addition to his evocatively minimalist figure drawing, lies in his ability to tease out and subsequently accentuate mood and feeling via shading and patterning techniques, and it’s always remarkable to see him challenge himself on that front and come up trumps : if you’re looking for a veritable clinic on how to balance warmth and familiarity with the somber and deliberately eerie, then these 18 pages offer precisely that, awash as they are in a visual tapestry of cool greys, dense blacks, and those intuitively-placed spot colors previously mentioned, all in service of a kind of wistfully reflective homecoming that lulls both subject and reader in with time-worn tales of things going bump in the night that somehow still bump even when one knows all the beats.

Is there really, then, nothing to be afraid of? Well, yes and no — after all, regardless of whether a particular yarn is new or old, Appalachia is always alive with the spirits of the past, and so often the best things in life are both simple and inherently timeless. Lampion conveys all of that in a manner so effective that the mood, and its impact, would be powerful enough even absent the death in his family that is announced at his narrative’s outset. But I fear I may have given away too much already.

Still, it’s not like this is some mystery story or anything, and that already-oft-mentioned sense of atmosphere is so strong regardless that plot specifics become well and truly a secondary feature here — which is in no way, shape, or form a criticism. On the contrary, it’s testament to Lampion’s skills that he can take such a basic premise and weave something so involving from its well-worn cloth. This is very much a personal story, yes, but it’s one with truly universal resonance.

What we’re looking at here, then, is something that’s very rare indeed : a companion piece that absolutely and unequivocally stands on its own to feet. Whether by accident or design.

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Mothers Tales is available for $7.00, with 20% of all proceeds going to the National Bail Fund, from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/mothers-tales

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the world of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“Death Plays A Mean Harmonica” — And Steve Lafler Crafts A Really Nice Comic

Oaxaca is an interesting, dare I say even magical place — a unique intersection of indigenous traditions, modern-day Mexican culture, and American expat bon vivant-ism that’s been added to the mix thanks to its large gringo transplant community. On any given night, anything can happen, and the air is pregnant with festivity, possibility, and even a dash intrigue.

Or so I’m told, at any rate — largely by my parents, who became part of that aforementioned gringo transplant community when they retired down there nearly two years ago. I’d dearly love to visit, but the pandemic has made that wish an impossibility for the time being, although hopefully not for too much longer. Until then, though, I’ve got their emails and photos — and the comics of EX-expat Steve Lafler, who returns to the place he once called home (or, in a pinch, a home away from home) for his latest self-published graphic novel, Death Plays A Mean Harmonica.

Okay, yes, it would be a lie to say this book isn’t first and foremost an involving and inviting ensemble-cast character drama, rife with narrative tributaries that coalesce in ways pleasingly unexpected if perhaps just a hair shy of downright surprising, but as much as it may be “about” newly-arrived transplants Gertie and Rex and their head-first dive into the social milieu of this little slice of Bohemia way south of the border, it’s very nearly as concerned with said slice of Bohemia way south of the border — specifically, its unspecifics : the pace of life, the atmosphere, the overall “vibe” that so many people looking for a fresh start in one way or another are first drawn to and then happy to immerse themselves in.

To that end, the book has an admirable sense of nonchalance to it — as mentioned, Lafler’s crafted a multi-faceted narrative here, but he’s not in any particular rush to force story “beats” upon readers, trusting more in both his storytelling ability and his no-doubt-sharp recollections of all things Oaxaca to weave a kind of low-key spell that’s all the more immersive for its leisurely qualities. Yes, there’s “connective tissue” aplenty that binds the fates of Gertie, Rex, a Zapotec vampire named Eduardo (who’s more into chicken than human blood), taxi-driving sentient fungus El Rey Pelon, free-spirited Caroline and, yes, Death himself — but there’s time and space (specifically, 140-plus pages of it) to sort all that out. If you’re not prepared to relax and enjoy the ride, though, you’ll be missing out on what can only be called a singularly and authentically Oaxacan reading experience, one that’s at least as concerned with the journeys of its characters, both natural and supernatural, as it is their various and sundry destinations.

This overall mellow-but-purposeful tone to the proceedings also makes its presence felt in Lafler’s smooth, fluid, entirely unforced art, an agreeable mix of semi-elegant brushwork, classical “just exaggerated enough” cartoonish-ness, subtle shading and texturing, and richly expressive facial expressions and body language. Even absent the crackerjack dialogue that’s always been Lafler’s stock in trade, these pages would be a joy to just look at and luxuriate in, each one a prime example of an experienced hand utterly confident in his own craft — and for damn good reason. It’s pitch-perfect, a veritable clinic on how to draw the eye into scenes where most of the drama comes by way of interpersonal communication rather than dull fisticuffs, chases on foot or by car, etc. When you look at Lafler’s characters talking, you instantly want to know what they’re talking about.

What it all adds up to is a comic done with equal parts passion and professionalism about a fascinating bunch of people (and other life forms) living in a fascinating place and getting up to fascinating things, together and separately. It made me want to get myself down to Oaxaca even more than I already dis going in, and I think it’s safe to say it will have that effect on most every reader — even folks who don’t have family down there.

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Death Plays A Mean Harmonica is available for $13.00 from J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books distro at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/death-plays-a-mean-harmonica

Review wrist check – on a freezing cold day like today, all a person can really do is dream about warmer weather, and what better way to do that than by looking down at your wrist and seeing the favorite summertime pairing of a Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a BluShark marlin NATO strap from their “AlphaShark” collection? Hell, this would be perfect for Oaxaca!