Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/30/2018 – 10/06/2018, Peter Faecke

One of the highlights of Autoptic 2018 for yours truly was making the acquaintance of Minneapolis’ own Peter Faecke, who is producing some of the most distinctive and classification-destroying minis around — and doing it just a few blocks from my own house? Yeah, it’s a small world and all that, but the coolest thing about Faecke’s work is that it’s proof positive that he actually lives on a different world than most of us altogether, one where the rules and conventions of sequential storytelling aren’t so much subverted as they are both adhered to and utterly dispensed with simultaneously.

Before you jump all over me for saying something so blatantly contradictory on its face, relax — I know that last sentence makes no fucking sense whatsoever. But then, neither does much of what’s on offer in Faecke’s comics — yet that doesn’t mean they don’t all work within the confines of a hermetically-sealed framework all their own, one that pays keen attention to any number of eras in the medium’s past, but does so without a hint of rose tint in its nostalgia or even so much as an ounce (thank God) of irony. Faecke’s a living blender of sorts, and every influence that makes its way into his subconscious ends up chopped up, mixed together, and fully reconstituted into something altogether different, something instantly familiar and wholly unrecognizable, in equal measure and at the same time. And yeah, I know — I’m doing that “contradiction thing” again. Fuck it, let’s just talk about some of Facke’s books:

Major Bummer #1 may be the most “accessible” thing under our metaphorical microscope in this column, but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily prepared for it. Think Ben Marra doing Rambo or G.I. Joe on three tabs of bad acid and no sleep for a week and you might be coming close. The protagonist of this story is such a caricature that he passes “Go,” collects his $200, and ends up almost becoming a sympathetic figure. He fights a Nazi werewolf and is set up to fail, and get killed, by — yup, you already know it — our own government. Heavy-handed beyond redemption entirely by design, offset-printed in eye-straining gradations of red and black that intrinsically feel sleazy and wrong, this is the definition of “beneath the underground” stuff. Plus, it’s funny as shit. Rick Altergott tried something tonally quite similar to this with his hysterical “Team America!” strip way back in Doofus #1 — and this may actually top that. Five bucks is a little steep price-wise for a slim mini, sure, but the production values here — hat-tip to Paul Lyons of Hidden Fortress Press — are amazing, and so is the work itself, as we’ve already established. We’re in “buy it or die” territory here, people.

Way on the other end of the spectrum we’ve got Hairguy 2, which is Faecke at his most unfiltered and, just maybe, unglued. The whole thing has the feel of a screen-printed high school homemade comic from hell, the kind of thing the kid everybody says might actually be crazy or dangerous comes up with in art class while everyone else is trying to do something “important.” An alarm clock duck flies to work at our titular character’s home, who either is literally made of hair, or else is simply covered in so much of it that he may as well be. Then he helps Hairguy get himself groomed and ready to go to the comic book store. Hairguy shops at Big Brain. I used to, as well. And, like Hairguy, I miss it like crazy, too. I assume a Hairguy 1 must exist somewhere. I’d like to get my hands on it. This one retails for seven bucks — again, a little steep. Again, totally worth it. Killer artistic choice — numbering each panel like the earliest Golden Age books.

While we’re talking Golden Age, The Hand Of Misery #1 takes a couple of lower-rung characters from that era that have lapsed into PD, Nightmare and Sleepy, and transposes them into a Bronze Age Marvel setting to take on Faecke’s cosmic villainess Misery. Skirting some of the same territory as the love-it-or-hate-it line of All-Time Comics from Fantagraphics, this takes the part-spoof/part-homage tone that Josh Bayer has established in those books to interesting new extremes, yet in the end feels much more like love letter than piss-take. The absurdity is called attention to overtly from the outset with an inside front cover reproduction of a Fletcher Hanks panel, but while said old-school absurdity is poked (and prodded), it’s never poked fun at by Faecke with anything less than appreciation, maybe even love, in his heart — even when he’s laying conventions bare (hell, threadbare) in no uncertain terms. Also, you ain’t lived until you’ve seen Faecke’s take on a double-page “Kirby Collage.” All this, plus full color inside and out, for five bucks? You’re not doing anything so important right now that you couldn’t be ordering up this comic instead.

When I was talking with Pete, I mentioned the name Mack White, and I was floored that he’d never heard of him, because the last stop on our tour this week, Pardners, feels — and even looks — like the answer to the question : “what if Mack White did an early draft of Brokeback Mountain in, say, 1992?” Swear to God, the flavor of “Weird Texas” hasn’t been captured this well by anybody since White (or maybe Michael Dougan), but for all I know Pete’s never even been there while Mack is native Texan to the core. In any case, this comic’s as painfully obvious as it is hilarious, as we follow the saga of two infamous gunslingers who finally meet face to face only to suffer from — mutual performance anxiety? Guns as dicks or vice-versa is the oldest analogy on the books, yeah, but it can still be damn funny. A total out-of-left field comic for Faecke in that it’s pretty simple surface-level comedy, but there’s sorta something so oddly endearing about these two rivals/lovers that it’s capable of making even the most bitter cynic say “awwwww.” Good value for money again at four dollars.

So, yeah — now you know what my neighbor is up to. Making some seriously idiosyncratic comics that never fail to bewilder, bemuse and, most importantly of all, surprise. I’m hoping he’ll have something new to unleash upon the world before the year is out, and I’m hoping he’ll hop down and slip a copy into my mailbox when it’s ready. The rest of you, though, should check out his Storenvy site for these books, plus a whole bunch of others. Here’s a link :http://thestinkhole.storenvy.com/products

Next week we’ll be taking a look at new stuff from November Garcia and Ines Estrada! See you here in seven days!

 

The Quiet Ruminations Of “A Lone Deer At The End Of The World” Ring Loud And Clear

Here’s the thing : if I were an editor or publisher, and cartoonist D. Bradford Gambles submitted his new mini, A Lone Deer At The End Of The World, to me — I confess that I’d probably be tempted to reject it. The book’s just too obvious, I’d  tell myself (and him). Too unsubtle. Too upfront with its message, perhaps to the detriment of its threadbare narrative. And you know what? I’d be right — but that doesn’t mean my choice to pass on it would be right.

Fortunately, J.T. Yost at Birdcage Bottom Books is a lot smarter than I am, he recognizes sheer artistry when he sees it, and he knows that no matter how overly-earnest the delivery, a message worth conveying is still worth conveying, and that when it’s rendered this beautifully — well, there is that old saying about the iron fist inside a velvet glove that comes to mind.

Anyway, to his credit, it’s not like Gambles is kidding anyone — in fact, he takes your agreement with his silent statements about consumerism and excess as a given, in much the same way that George A. Romero did in his legendary Dawn Of The Dead — and, like Romero, a post-apocalyptic shopping mall is where he sets his wordless polemic. That’s pretty much where the parallels stop, though. Even if I kept waiting for a zombie to shamble in from out of frame at some point.

For one thing, this comic is absolutely gorgeous — Gambles is a cartoonist of the highest technical skill and proficiency, his clean and precise lines immediately arresting the eye and his lush and sumptuous colors somehow tugging at the heart as effortlessly as they do the mind and the optic nerve. This ain’t no horror comic, in other words, even if its barren and frozen landscapes hint at an absolutely devastating apocalypse that has already come to pass.

Another remarkable thing about Gambles’ comic — for a relatively short work, the pacing is remarkably slow and deliberate. That might stand to reason given we’re talking about a story that essentially boils down to a deer wandering through an abandoned mall, but the sheer amount of information contained within a relatively limited number of actual, narrative actions here is beyond striking and establishes a unique relationship with time that pervades every panel from start to finish. It would be a lie to say that a “whole lot happens” in these pages, but one thing’s for sure — a whole lot is said. Even if the proceedings are entirely silent.

All that being said, I don’t pretend for a minute that A Lone Deer At The End Of The World isn’t very much a “your mileage may vary” comic. My earlier points about its obviousness and far-less-than-subtlety absolutely stand. But Gambles finds a way to use these apparent “shortcomings” to his benefit — and ours. This is deeply moving, deeply stirring, deeply contemplative stuff. And the only time I’ve ever been knocked out by a touch as light as a feather.

Going With The Flow Of Tara Booth’s “Nocturne”

At this point in the history of the comics medium — hell, at this point in the history of art in general — irony, particularly humorous irony, by all rights really shouldn’t work anymore. It certainly doesn’t deserve to, the vast majority of the time it doesn’t, and I’m generally of a mind that the more sequential narratives stay the fuck away from it, the better. It takes an extraordinary talent to pull off what’s been done literally thousands of times before, to find something new in such thoroughly-mined territory, but it probably takes something more than that, too — it takes a supreme amount of entirely-earned confidence, as opposed to mere empty bravado. It takes vision, not just an idea. And it takes top-level ability to execute, which goes well above and beyond simple competence.

In other words, it takes Tara Booth.

If How To Alive was Booth’s breakthrough, then her new 2dcloud book, Nocturne, is her announcement that she’s here to stay, and that she has a very definite artistic agenda — one that she cleverly couches in  highly-accessible, entirely non-threatening terms, allowing the beauty of her gouache paintings and the light-hearted tone of her narratives to subtly communicate strongly-stated messages about sexual freedom, gender identity, consent, and kink. Consider : this book features an extended look at a surreal night in the life of a dominatrix (presumably a stand-in for the cartoonist herself, or at least a particular facet of her personality), and yet it could almost (mind you, I say almost) fit comfortably in the “YA” section of your local bookshop.

And while we’re talking about “surreal,” it should be noted that when Booth’s protagonist/analogue enters into an altered mental space thanks to a few too many sleeping pills, not only does the book in no way become confusing, it actually gains  strength. Not that anything here is particularly difficult to follow, mind you — Booth’s wordless storytelling draws you in immediately and rushes you along with its heady flow — but that flow is so quietly compelling, so easy, so smooth, so unforced, that it has the quality of a dream to it, and when the narrative itself literally becomes a dream, it fits as comfortably as a favorite glove. Then dreams and reality blend together, and the results? They’re downright sublime.

To be totally fair, it could be said that this book is essentially one long joke stretched out to fill 64 pages (plus some wonderful pencil-and-ink pages at the front and back), but Booth incorporates so many issues central to her main artistic mission that one could also fairly say that this is an expansive, multi-faceted examination of the contemporary state of sexual politics, particularly within the BDSM community, expressed in the form of a deceptively simple, 64-page ironic joke. And therein lies the genius (a term I never employ without good reason) of what Booth has achieved here : a story that is both breezy and fun, but also completely serious; a book with an undeniably clear point of view and message that nonetheless is never preachy or even particularly over-earnest.

It all comes back to our word of the day : flow. I say with no hyperbole whatsoever that Nocturne positively washes over the reader and subsumes you with its sense of wonder and, believe it or not, simplicity. Sexual identity and the politics of consent within the BDSM “scene” are frequently fraught with complications, it’s true, but when it all works and everyone’s on the same page? It can be pretty damn awesome. Booth navigates some of the trickiest and thorniest of subsets in the spectrum of human sexuality within these pages and never forgets that at the end of day (or night), it’s still all about having fun. As is her remarkably heartfelt, passionate, and joyous book.

Swipe Right On M.S. Harkness’ “Tinderella”

My dating experience entirely pre-dates the “Tinder Era,” a fact for which I’m eternally grateful — and who wouldn’t be? After all, as embarrassing as it may be for many people of my generation to confess to their offspring that that they met their other parent at a bar, it seems to me that it’ll require a greater degree of pride-swallowing — and maybe even a bit of “Dutch Courage” — for parents 10 years from now to tell little Jimmy or Jenny that mommy and daddy got together for a quick hook-up on a goddamn matchmaking app and then, hey, things just kinda took off from there.

Still, the times are what they are, and the youngsters seem to like swiping left or right, reducing their fellow human beings to the level of a product being shopped for. It all seems pretty mercenary to me, but lots of people are having success with it, apparently — maybe even cartoonist/fellow Minneapolitan M.S. Harkness.

Except, of course, when she isn’t, and her new Kilgore Books graphic novel, Tinderella, documents the good, the bad, and (mostly) the in-between of today’s dating reality with relentless honesty, an admirable degree of self-deprecation, and just the right amount of wit. It’s not a comic that re-defines the autobio/memoir genre by any means, but if a middle-aged guy like me found it engaging, involving, and plenty easy to relate to, then I would imagine that folks more near to and/or in the same “twenty-something” age demographic as Harkness herself will probably find themselves saying “oh my God, that’s just like what happened to me!” on just about every page.

I say “just about” because one of the curious things that Harkness does is to intersperse her fairly straight-forward narrative with one-page vignettes designed to at the very least tease out, at the most highlight and amplify, certain themes in the main story, and these are a mixed bag — some do their intended job and justify her decision to take readers on a side-step, while others fall flat. They peter out as the book focuses on more organically-developing subplots (Harkness’ difficult family history providing the wellspring most of these tributaries emerge from), but I keep coming back to them in successive re-visits of the material simply because they stand out so prominently either for good or ill, and I always appreciate it when a cartoonist is willing to make a gutsy call like that and stand or fall on the choices they make.

That being said, I’d be very surprised if Harkness tried something similar in future — not only because her previous, short-form work has been pretty much “straight-line-from-A-to-B” storytelling, but because she’s clearly readying herself for “prime time.” Her cartooning style, for instance, while not particularly distinctive (and that is in no way a “knock” on it), is about as fundamentally solid and smartly-constructed as it gets, her illustrations drawing the eye exactly where it needs to be, her thick lines and studiously-employed, inky blacks creating pleasing images that are easily absorbed and would probably be quite pleasing to even a non-comics-reading audience. In other words, what she either lacks or deliberately eschews in terms of uniqueness, she more than makes up for in terms of sheer, unforced, artistic literacy.

So, yeah, she may make it look easy, but there’s no way that telling a story this personal ever really is. Harkness doesn’t shy away from honest depictions of her own superficiality or insecurity, but unlike a lot of the predominantly-male autobio cartoonists of my generation and the ones preceding it, she doesn’t wallow in her flaws, either. She’s remarkably judgment-free about the subjects of all her stories that I’ve read to date, and when that subject is yourself — shit, that can be tough. Sure, she’s as horny, as obsessive, as hypocritical as many other folks, but she isn’t consumed with guilt by any of that, nor is she particularly proud of it — she’s simply who she is, and we can take it or leave it, and while that sounds like it should be a pretty easy view for someone to come by when examining their own life, in truth very few cartoonists actually manage to achieve it. I’m certainly not sure that I could.

That’s a big reason why Harkness’ comics seem so refreshing, but it was an open question as to whether or not she’d be able to successfully retain this “warts and all, but let’s not dwell too hard on the warts and pay a bit more attention to the ‘all’ part of the equation” in a 100-plus-page book, having solely produced shorter or mid-length strips to this point. Fortunately for us all, she never wavers, never pulls back, never drops the ball. This is some straight-up determined cartooning, and she pursues her sequential storytelling with the same dogged persistence that she goes after tall, muscular, “alpha-male” guys.

I was glad for many things by the time I finished Tinderella. I was glad I read the book. I was glad to see one of the “bright lights” of the local cartooning scene (here’s a couple sports cliches she’d hopefully approve of) “up her game” and “take it to the next level.” I was glad for the laughs and the moments of genuine human poignancy that were offered up in equal measure. But most of all — I was damn glad to be older, and married.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/23/2018 – 09/29/2018, Cole Johnson

On deck for this week’s Round-Up column we’ve got a quartet of self-published minis from astonishingly literate cartoonist Cole Johnson, who has staked out his own unique metaphorical patch of turf quickly and is plowing it for all it’s worth. As is the case with John Porcellino, the deceptively minimalist style Johnson utilizes conveys a tremendous amount of information and, more importantly, feeling with as little fuss and muss as possible, consequently allowing his lean illustrations to pack more emotional “wallop” per line than he should, by all rights, be able to convey. Each of these books (three of which are in full color, and it’s gotta be said that Johnson is also a superb colorist) collects a series of thematically-similar short strips which seep into the consciousness of the reader with a heady mix of subtlety and inevitability, and reading all four at once, as I did, definitely has the power to “set the tone” for the rest of your day — or at least the next several hours of it, depending on what you’ve got going on.

Keeping all that in mind, then, I’m going to dispense with the plot recaps for each strip entirely and try something entirely different — what follows is not so much a traditional “capsule review” for these comics, but a cataloguing of the feelings that they stirred up in me as I read them. You’ll no doubt notice a very distinct  pattern emerge, and will walk away with a solid grasp of whether or not these comics are your “sort of thing.” I’ll state right now, and for the record, that they’re absolutely and unequivocally my “sort of thing,” and that I can’t wait to see what Johnson does next.

Forgotten Melody At The Edge Of Memory – Loneliness. Contemplation. Melancholy. Yearning. Alienation. Dissociation. Nostalgia. Despair. Restlessness. Ennui. Nihilsim. Resignation.

Never In A Million Years – Isolation. Failure. Longing. Yearning. Alienation. Dislocation. Apathy. Contemplation. Fear. Reverie. Resignation. Wistfulness.

Of Course – Lamentation. Heartbreak. Resignation. Tragedy. Wistfulness. Alienation. Vexation. Morbidity. Uselessness. Pity. Stoicism. Turmoil.

Ellipsis #1 – Anxiety. Contemplation. Dreariness. Inevitability. Depression. Weariness. Alienation. Wistfulness. Apathy. Isolation. Yearning. Apprehensiveness.

As you can see, Johnson is a cartoonist who knows what his particular skill-set and outlook is particularly good at conveying, and his work can very fairly be said to all be “of a piece.” And yet each story finds a method or two by which to express similar sentiments in new and, dare I say it, even clever ways. At some point it might be interesting to see our guy Cole move outside his “comfort zone” and try something entirely unexpected, sure, but for now — I’ll be damned if there’s anyone else out there doing what he does anywhere near as well as he does it. This is deeply felt, deeply humane, deeply personal work that is sure to make even the most hardened of hearts bleed a few drops — albeit in a muted, understated way that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself or its turmoil. If you’re feeling down none of these comics are going to pick you up, that’s for sure — and with Ellipsis slated to be a quarterly ongoing series it’s a safe bet that Johnson’s got a lot more to say on the particular set of concerns he seems downright consumed by — but they will let you know, in no uncertain terms, that there’s somebody else out there who knows pretty much exactly what you’re going through and has channeled those feelings through his conscious and subconscious mind in order to create some truly poignant art.

So, ya know, maybe all is not lost after all. Next week we’ll venture into far more uplifting territory, I promise, but until then, the following links may come in handy —

Forgotten Melody At The Edge Of MemoryNever In A Million Years, and Of Course all carry a $6.00 price tag and are available directly from the cartoonist via his bigcartel online store at https://colejohnson.bigcartel.com/products

John Porcellino (hey, there’s that name again!) also has all three of these titles available at his Spit And A Half distro site, and he also seems to be the only person offering Ellipsis #1 for sale at this point in time, so if you want to give that a go (and I really think you do), you can order that up for five bucks here :http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/ellipsis-1-by-cole-johnson/

When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Go To Africa : Mike Freiheit’s “Monkey Chef”

We’ve all been there — dead-end job, dead-end love life, dead-end existence. In his previous autobiographical minis, Chicago-based cartoonist Mike Freiheit has dwelt on these issues in exacting (and often hilarious) detail, but in his longest work to date, the impressive and ambitious graphic novel (parts of which were also previously issued as self-published mins) Monkey Chef, we learn what he did when he hit the proverbial wall after too many years in New York — and let’s just say that the “escape route” he chose was an unconventional one in the extreme, one that makes for fascinating memoir material.

In short : he takes on a gig as a cook at a primate sanctuary in South Africa, where he prepares and serves up  food for both the “residents” (monkeys) and staff (people, not that you needed me to tell you that). The stage is all set for a “clean break,” a “fresh start,” a — fill in your cliche of choice, I suppose. But life has a way of dealing you a weird hand when you least expect it —

In this particular case, the “wrinkle” in Freiheit’s plan is not what anyone would call “bad news” — after endless short-term relationships that ended either suddenly, badly, or some combination of the two, he finally meets a woman that he really connects with just before he splits the country — but it does make for a challenging situation, as he and his new lady-love go through the whole “early-stage relationship” thing from not just a long distance, but a very long distance. And then, both surprisingly and pleasantly, those early stages become middle stages become commitment become — I think you know the drill. It’s interesting on a clinical level to watch love bloom under unconventional circumstances, sure, but it’s also quite heartening on a human level to see the old “love conquers all” axiom play out between two people that you find almost immediately likable. Tip to other cartoonists out there — whether real or fictional, there’s no crime in telling stories that feature characters that most readers can relate to and, consequently, that they end up wanting the best for. Just a suggestion.

What Freiheit manages to do that borders on narrative genius, though (a term I never invoke lightly, I assure you) is to draw parallels between the behaviors he sees among his new primate friends and similar actions in humans, both on the “micro” and “macro” levels. He’s not out to do anything like a treatise on the theory of evolution here, but he ends up authoring one by default simply because “they” reflect “us” (and vice-versa) so frequently, and so naturally, that you can’t help but notice it and nod your head knowingly. There’s lots of other commendable stuff on offer here, of course — Freiheit’s clean and humane cartooning style, his flair for characterization, his smooth and evocative color choices, his self-deprecating wit — but the unforced, naturalistic manner in which he consistently demonstrates correlations between “monkey world” and “people world” definitely stands out as a high point among high points.

Another strength worth calling special attention to while we’re at it is how well this book — which, unless I’m very much mistaken, is the longest that’s ever been released by its publisher, Kilgore Books —just plain flows. It’s downright seamless in its low-key (but unmistakable) thrust, and if you finish the whole thing in one sitting, you won’t be alone, because that’s exactly what I did. It’s a page-turner in the truest sense of the term, with every scene building upon the last in easy succession. Freiheit doesn’t “force you along,” by any means, but you find yourself unmistakably compelled to go with his flow. It’s a damn rewarding way to develop a story, and it pays off big-time by the time all is said and done.

Not that Monkey Chef is a comic you’ll in any way be ready to see end. You won’t. But well before you hit those final pages, you’ll already know : this is one that you’ll be re-visiting frequently for many years to come.

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/16/2018 – 09/22/2018, “Now” #4 And New Minis From Brian Canini

From the best anthology comic in a decade to the best ongoing mini, this week had plenty to offer yours truly. It’s late as I write this, I’m tired, but I’m also enthused to talk comics, so let’s do just that —

I’m not sure what it is about fourth issues of anthologies, but in much the same way that Kramers Ergot #4 threw down the gauntlet and shouted “this is where comics are now, and this is where comics are going — dare you to stop us!” way back in the halcyon days of 2008, editor Eric Reynolds has assembled the very best of the best of veteran and emerging contemporary cartoonists to make much the same declaration here in 2018 with Now #4, which marks not only the (temporary?) pinnacle of this Fantagraphics series to date, but also something of a high-water mark for the anthology format in general. Anyone who wants to keep up is going to have their work cut out for them, as there’s not a false note on offer here, and the occasional “clunkers” that made their way into the first three issues are literally nowhere to be found. Yes, that’s really me saying that, while some strips in this collection are no doubt more successful than others in terms of achieving their aims, literally every single one of them is at the very least good, and several are bona fide revelations. The pages between Trenton Doyle Hancock’s visceral gut-punch of a cover and Nick Thorburn’s all-too-true back cover are loaded with creativity that ranges from the sublime to the explosive, and if you’re looking for a temperature-gauge of the overall health and vitality of the medium in general, this is evidence that, for all the hand-wringing going on in (and about) comics these days, things have arguably never been better for those willing to travel off the beaten path.

I don’t usually do this, but — “A+” marks  go to Brian Blomerth’s staggeringly inventive visual tour-de-force “Pray For Pianoland,” Julian Glander’s wistful and breathtakingly-realized “Skybaby,” Diego Agrimbau and Lucas Varela’s multi-layered metafictional mind-fuck “The Absolute Truth,” Nathan Cowdry’s two entries, the melancholic “I Thought Of You All The Way Down” and the uniquely acerbic “Kewpie,” Theo Ellsworth’s nightmarish-yet-innocent (and vice-versa) “What Are You Doing?,” Roman Muradov’s gorgeous and devilishly clever “Quarters,” and Tommi Parrish’s searingly understated and achingly human untitled relationship autopsy ; solid “A” grades are awarded Cynthia Alfonso’s minimalist and deeply resonant “From Noise To White,” Walt Holcombe’s refreshingly unpretentious autobiographical paean to the joys of meditation, “I Am Bananas,” Matthias Lehmann’s richly-delineated and thematically complex “The Cave,” Rebecca W. Kirby’s sumptuous and soul-baring “Waves,” and David Alvarado’s crisp, embarrassingly true-to-life “Afterschool Special,” the only “throwback”-style strip in the bunch; and pulling up what passes for the “rear” with “B” grades are John Ohannesian’s lavishly-rendered short humor strip, “30,000 Years Ago,” Maria Medem’s block-color feast of paranoia and apprehension, “Maimed Gaze,” and the second installment of J.C. Menu’s cartoon dream diary, “S.O.S. Suitcases,” which is such a leaps-and-bounds improvement over the one presented “way” back in issue number one that I almost feel like giving him extra points just for surpassing expectations.

Throw in a near-suicidally-generous cover price of $9.99 for 128 pages and what you’ve got here is very probably the “must-buy” comic of the year — or even of the last several. Now has hit a stride few anthologies ever manage in a remarkably short period of time, and is absolutely brimming over with vitality at this point. We are so damn lucky to have this series, and now that Reynolds has his feet firmly under him and has managed to fully differentiate his current project from his earlier (and justly legendary) MOME, all I can say is — watch out. We appear to be in the presence of one of the all-time greats here.

Brian Canini’s Plastic People #6 continues the meticulous world-building that is the backbone of what I’ve made no secret is my favorite ongoing mini. Yeah, this issue is pure “side-step” that doesn’t advance the plot in any appreciable way, focusing as it does on a double-date between our two “surgical police” protagonists and their significant others, but it’s a fun exit off the main narrative’s thoroughfare that adds depth, nuance, and even a little complexity both to the personal lives of the people we’re getting to know, and to the nightmarishly phony future L.A. that they inhabit. You could probably skip this issue and get away with it in terms of keeping up, but at just $1.99 there’s really no reason to do that.

By contrast, Plastic People #7 is easily the weakest chapter in the ongoing saga to date, although we do return to propelling the murder-mystery plot forward in this one and Canini’s cartooning is, as ever, strong, clean, and economical in its precision. Still, when you see “future” residents of Tinseltown still, like, saying “like” all the, like, time — and, even more embarrassingly, still using terms like “amazeballs” — something tells me that not enough thought has gone into extrapolating some type of unique dialect that will surely develop over time. I’m not saying everything’s gotta be as intricately-woven as the visionary sci-fi linguistics that Alan Moore developed for The Ballad Of Halo Jones or Crossed + One Hundred, but seriously — slang terms come and go, and some of the ones we see here are already pretty well on the way out.

Even more annoying : the entire narrative trajectory of this issue is rather cynically constructed in service of a cheap punchline on the last page that you’ll see coming a mile away. It’s not like Canini to be this painfully obvious, and it’s rather disappointing to see, but let’s give him his due — seven issues in with only one misstep is a pretty good ratio, and I see no reason to think this one isn’t an unfortunate aberration that he’ll quickly brush aside. This is still a great series, that just happens to have one pretty damn lousy issue. No reason to jump ship at all, and hey, at least this one is still just two bucks, as well.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again : the law of averages dictates that Canini’s Blirps probably should have been a “one-and-done” deal, but somehow he keeps milking way more fun out of this fairly simple premise than I ever would have thought possible. More four-panel “gag” strips featuring neurotic and obsessive robot monsters are what you get here, and every one of them is damn funny and too charming for its own good. So, ya know, don’t even listen to me anymore, Brian — keep making these as long as you feel like, because they keep on hitting all the right notes. $1.99 for a full-color mini is also a pretty nice buy in today’s comics economy.

And with that, we come to the end of another Round-Up column. Next week’s selections remain entirely up in the air, as I’ve received some very nice-looking stuff in the mail recently, but won’t have much time to start reading any of it until tomorrow evening. What I particularly like, or particularly dislike, we’ll talk about here in seven short days, if that’s cool with you — or even if it’s not. in the meantime —

Now #4 will be hitting your LCS shelves on Wednesday and is, as already stated, the very definition of an essential purchase, while Brain Canini’s minis are, as always,  available via his Drunken Cat Comics imprint, which has a Storenvy site at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/