A Tale Of Two Comics, Part Two : Brian Canini’s “Two More Stories”

Flipping to the other metaphorical side of the equally metaphorical coin we again metaphorically tossed into the air with our last review here, we land (last metaphor, I promise) on Brian Canini’s Two More Stories (published, as ever, under his own Drunkent Cat Comics imprint) — and if Three Stories represented everything that’s wrong with his career-spanning “throw some ideas at the wall and see which of ’em sticks” approach to cartooning, this superb mini represents everything that’s right with just following your muse wherever it leads you, come hell or high water. It’s an inherently high-risk/high-reward way of making comics, and this one falls squarely into the “reward” column.

Canini’s titular two stories function as both mirror images to, and thematic extensions of, one another, with the first, “Empty Rivers,” telling the tale of a “prodigal son” type who returns home for his mother’s funeral and is then forced to try to process his sense of loss and grief while punching the clock at his shitty service sector gig, while the second, “And Life Is Brief,” concerns a middle-aged woman paying a visit to her dying mother, from whom she’s estranged, and attempting to explain said estrangement to her kids. Both stories eschew heavy-handedness in favor of an agreeably oblique approach to complex subjects and trust readers to form their own conclusions and fill in the blanks in regards to both specific details and potential resolutions. Simply put, these are smart, sophisticated, subtle stories that hit all the right notes.

They’re also both nicely illustrated, in Canini’s populist style that borders on minimalism but retains strong elements of both classical cartooning and visual expressiveness — but more importantly they’re conceptually tight and form a really nice one-two punch when considered in juxtaposition with one another. As short-form strips, they’re each nearly flawless individually, but taken together they rise to a level well above even that. This in, in fact, an unassuming but undoubtedly masterful clinic on how to package and present stories together.

One thing I found curious was Canini’s decision to set the second strip in the future and to have the difficult parent-child conversation take place in a car straight out of The Jetsons, but this was an agreeable oddity more than it was an outright distraction, so again — props to our cartoonist for walking a fine line and remaining on just the right side of it. This isn’t always easy to do, but Canini makes it look easy and, more crucially, it all makes a kind of intuitive sense — you can’t quite put your finger on why it works, you only know that it does, and in the overall scheme of things, guess what? That’s really all that matters.

Honestly, I’m searching high and low here to level some criticism — even a mild one — at this book, just for the sake of critical balance, but nothing springs to mind at all. Even little touches like the gray-tone shading Canini adds to the second story work to accentuate and deepen the overall reading experience, and if my beef with Three Stories largely boiled down to the fact that it didn’t seem like Canini had thought the whole thing through much, the greatest praise I can offer Two More Stories is that he actually doesn’t over-think things — he just taps into a creative flow and rides it out for as far as it will go.

Which, as it turns out, is pretty goddamn far. This may very well be the most confident, cogent, and accomplished release from Brian Canini to date. You owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

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Two More Stories is available for $1.99 from the Drunken Cat Comics website at https://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/products/30863416-two-more-stories

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

A Tale Of Two Comics, Part One : Brian Canini’s “Three Stories”

Here at Four Color Apocalypse HQ (it sounds more impressive than it is, trust me — and it doesn’t even sound impressive), we’re always happy to get the latest from Columbus-based cartoonist Brian Canini. He’s one of the more versatile talents around these days, and someone who’s not afraid to try his hand on a little bit of everything, from gag strips to autobio to long-form crime stories to funny animals to science fiction — and everything in between. Lately, he’s been delving into the venerable single-creator anthology format with a series of minis, and while the results have been a mixed bag, there’s no harm in that — anthologies almost always are, and I’d rather see a cartoonist push themselves out of their comfort zones a bit and not be afraid to fail rather than going the safe and easy “give the fans what they want” route. Canini has two such anthologies that have just been released under the imprimatur of his Drunken Cat Comics self-publishing imprint, and we’ll be taking a look at them in this review and the next, but be warned — in terms of quality, the difference between this pair of ‘zines is literally night and day.

First up, then, we have Three Stories, a brisk 8-page read presented in full color that sees Canini flexing his cartooning muscles a bit by drawing at least one fairly sophisticated compositions and any number of varying anatomical figures — but I can’t say it has much going for it beyond that. Which I’ll admit is a fairly harsh judgment, but — I do have to call ’em like I see ’em, and the contents of this one are well and truly all over the map thematically, with no clear through-line connecting them in any way other than the fact that each of the three stories here misses the mark.

Canini starts off with an utterly miscellaneous youthful reminiscence in “Asinine Memory,” and the title gives away the plot — he overhears some nitwit young boy on the school bus asking a variation of the old “boxers or briefs” question to a female classmate, and that’s about it. In his own narration, Canini admits it’s just some pointless little thing that stuck in his mind, but that’s it. And so it is. My objection to this isn’t so much that nothing of import happens, nor that Canini offers no context beyond “hey, check out this random shit” — rather, it lies in the fact that he doesn’t give us any reason to care about it, and more or less ‘fesses up to that fact himself.

Somewhat more successful is “Let’s Talk About Elephants,” which contains that nice-looking composition I mentioned earlier, but ultimately what Caninini does here amounts to little more than a tantalizing little experiment. We’ve all fallen back on the old cliche of the “elephant in the room” a time or two in our lives, but he undercuts what amounts to a perfectly competent, if uninspired, story about a couple on the brink of a breakup (one partner just wants to have fun and the other is looking for something more serious) by curiously deciding to make this particular elephant of theirs an actual elephant that shows up at their door. I get what he’s trying here, but not every artistic exercise needs to be seen by the public, and this doesn’t rise above the level of ” vaguely interesting idea he probably should have left in the sketchbook.”

Canini rounds things out with a one-page gag called “The Heroin Of Snack Foods” that compares Pringles potato chips to smack — complete with equally deadly results — for reasons I really can’t fathom, and while I have no issue whatsoever with absurdity for its own sake, when presented as a four-panel “quickie” like this, it really needs to be funny. This isn’t funny, unfortunately. It’s just flat.

So — what do we have here, then? A trio of throwaway stories that simply can’t find a way to matter in any way, shape, or form, and that it really doesn’t appear very much thought went into. Fortunately, though, this complete misfire is balanced out by another mini titled Two More Stories, shown above, that’s entirely successful. But we’ll get to that in the next review.

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Three Stories is available for $1.99 from the Drunken Cat Comics website at https://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/products/30910516-three-stories

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Olympos” gold dial model riding a Hirsch “Genuine Croco” strap in emerald green.

What’s In A Name? Bryce Martin’s “Untitled” Mini-Comic

Normally, I tend to think that artists who don’t bother to put a title on their works are either being lazy, pretentious, or both — but after reading Bryce Martin’s recent self-published mini Untitled, I have to admit : If I were him (and he should be damn glad I’m not), I don’t know what the hell I would call this thing, either. In fact, even describing it is tough enough — and I say that as someone who at least likes to think that they’ve seen just about everything this medium has to offer.

All of which means, of course, that while this ‘zine doesn’t represent anything especially new per se, it does represent something quite different. And it kicks a lot of ass along the way to becoming and/or being — well, whatever it is. And in a very real sense, trying to define it, whether with a “proper” name or even a detailed description, rather defeats what I take to be the entire purpose of the work. Which may sound like me trying to be, as I just put it, “lazy, pretentious, or both” myself, but I assure you — it’s not. I’m not being paid enough to lie to you good people.

Look, here’s the deal : I’ve been poring over this thing for a good few nights now, and apart from figuring out that it’s got characters, and they’re on some sort of excursion or journey of discovery in some sort of over-crowded metropolis, there’s not much more about it I can really tell you without veering into the fascistic realm of informing you how you purportedly should think about this work, so I mean — why bother with that? What I will say is that Martin uses a more anarchic and intentionally ill-defined or “squiggly” line here than he does in the last one of his minis I reviewed on this site, Ultra8, and that he appears to probably have channeled most of this right from his subconscious to the page —and for this critic, at least, that almost always represents not only the most honest, but also the most exciting type of cartooning. There’s some garish colors at play on the back cover, and what looks very much to my mind like washes in some of the panels here and there, but by and large this is mainly heavy pen work with a ton of energy that incorporates some of the manga influences that I’m coming to realize are par for the course with Martin’s comics, as well as maybe a bit of a Pushwagner vibe, minus his precision. It looks great, it reads great — even if a lot of the dialogue is obliquely self-referential in that it refers to events and personages (?) that exist in a world we know nothing about — and it whisks you along for a ride from points unknown to points even more unknown, so really : what more could you ask for?

I’m tempted, at this point, to reflexively regurgitate some variation of “I don’t know art, but I know what I like,” but that’s not really the case. I rather flatter myself that I do know art, specifically comic art, and sometimes I actually have a pretty tough time deciding whether or not I well and truly like something, so — ah, shit, I don’t know where that leaves us. I really don’t. And it’s just as true to state that I don’t know where this ‘zine left me, nor do I know where it started, so hey : can I just say I liked it a lot but can’t precisely opine as to why that is? Please?

Maybe you deserve better than this review. Bryce Martin certainly does. He created something utterly “out of left field” here that’s probably not going to garner a bunch of reviews — and the one it does get is written by some third-rate clown who’s having a tricky time telling people what’s so great about it. But it is great, of that there’s no doubt, and I think the reasons as to why it is are probably going to vary from reader to reader. I know that for me, it has that profound feeling of sheer and unmediated inspiration to it throughout, and whenever you can find that in something you really should be grateful for it. To it. Whichever.

Your own mileage may — indeed, almost certainly will — vary, of course, but Martin’s crafted a righteous work of such immediacy and raw vitality here that you’re going to get some kinda mileage out of regardless. One day maybe I’ll crack its code and discover that it holds the secrets of the universe. Or maybe one day I’ll come to the conclusion that’s it’s just a zany neo-futurist runaround hastily cobbled together while it was all still fresh in its creator’s mind. Who’s to say the two are mutually exclusive?

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Untitled is available for $5.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/untitledbryce.html

Review wrist check – Squale “1521” classic blue dial model riding a marlin NATO strap from BluShark’s absurdly-named (but cool-looking, and that’s what counts) “AlphaShark” collection.

Bryce Martin’s Ultra Weird “Ultra8”

Falling somewhere between what we — or at least I — think of as an old-school underground mini and a Garo-esque “alternative” manga, Bryce Martin (who’s on a real roll this year, having produced five comics in 2020 by my count) has produced a uniquely curious item with his self-published Ultra8, a philosophical treatise on emerging and becoming told by means of a team-up between Japanese pop culture icons Ultraman (who, for the record, isn’t real) and Tadanori Yokoo (who, equally obviously, is).On paper, then — which is what this printed on, after all (and very nice paper, at that) — what we have here is at the very least a study in contrasts between a pair of incongruous figures, but in reality is more than that, in both theory and practice. Possibly even a lot more. But I’m not entirely sure what that “something more” consists of.

And you know what? That’s okay. In fact, it’s good. Comics that one can quickly get a handle on are just as quickly forgotten, even dispensed with, but Martin’s stuff really makes you think. His concerns are fairly narrow and fairly singular, but he finds a lot of real estate within them to explore not just what they mean to him, but what they mean in general. Answers are hard to come by within his experimental narratives, but the questions he poses bear serious consideration and analysis, and that’s the important thing.

To that end, here are the basics of the set-up for this one : an Ultraman stand-in gets thrown off a train and is duly challenged to keep up with legendary artist Yokoo, not just physically but conceptually — to “up his game,” as the saying goes, by becoming something more than a physical being. By becoming an idea. Which, of course, is precisely what Ultraman is anyway. So you see the challenge here — the contradiction, even. In fact, it’s both stark and inherently inexplicable all in one go.

Martin’s brisk, minimalist dialogue conveys this in a manner that glibly suggests it’s all less philosophically dense than it really is, which is both clever and populist, but it’s the choices Martin makes with his art that really underscore the multi-faceted approach he takes to his subject matter in a more general sense — employing a crisp line throughout, he leans on figure drawing that’s sharp and detailed for for one character (Ultraman) and ephemeral for another (Yokoo), and peppers both of them (as well as their extra-dimensional surroundings) liberally with what sure looks a lot like Zip-A-Tone, but is likely a digital approximation thereof. Then he oscillates between yellow and pink color schemes before finally introducing light blues when something like transcendence — or a bridge to it, at any rate — enters the fray. It’s all evocative as hell, but again — not necessarily in a way a reader can immediately put their finger on.

Comics don’t get much more subjective than this, then, nor does art in general, but for all that the trajectory here is pretty straightforward — even disarmingly so. Those of us who read a lot of “art comics” are used to feeling or intuiting our way through things, but you don’t really need to do that here — although I’d posit that doing so will lead to a much deeper and richer experience. Still, I suppose it’s nice to know that if you only want to spend a handful of minutes with something, Martin affords you the opportunity to do that with this work while still ensuring that you’ll walk away entertained and even temporarily transfixed, if ultimately somewhat befuddled. Again, though, we don’t mind “befuddled” around these parts, and you can just as easily spend hours poring over this comic and ultimately feel that way about it, as well.

By the time all is said and done, then — no matter how long a time we’re talking about — what we’re looking at here is auteur comics at their very best. Bryce Martin has created his own unique brand of visual narrative and proceeds accordingly, telling his story his way — with two characters that aren’t his, per se, but who he nevertheless very much makes his own and utilized for his own purposes.

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Ultra8 is available for $5.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/ultra8.html

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 68” in burnt orange.

“Proverbs Of Hell” : The Marriage Of Zenick And Blake

You literally never know what Jeff Zenick is going to come up with next, and that’s one of the most interest things about him : he’s an artist who never sits still or rests on his laurels, who never fails to find a new way to express himself via his portrait work. In recent years he’s turned his skilled eye and hand to reproducing criminal mugshots and vintage high school yearbooks, and now he’s trained his talents on a subject that would likely vex just about anyone : William Blake.

Well, okay, not Blake himself per se, but the 70 aphorisms included as part of his epic The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, which have apprently wormed their way so deeply into Zenick’s mind that he’s literally been ruminating over how to approach this project for nearly 30 years, having first attempted to give it a go in truncated form as a mini comic way back in 1991. To say a lot of thought went into the just-released (and, as always, self-published) Proverbs Of Hell would, then, be a massive understatement indeed.

Zenick is probably channeling more than Blake here, though : he seems to have tapped into his inner Charles Burns pretty directly (and successfully) as well, his heavy black inks and stark approach to exaggeration, shading, and expression really kicking up into another gear in this ‘zine. The rotating handful of characters he’s depicting this time around appear to be in various states of distress both mental and physical, some of which would seem to bear direct correlation to the proverb their face appears beneath, but sometimes the connections are more oblique or intuited, and one is left wondering about not only the wisdom of Blake’s words, but the choices Zenick makes as an artist. It all makes for a heady experience, but fair warning : if you’re prone to a heroic self-image, this is gonna disabuse you of that goofy notion in a hurry.

Still, Zenick’s never been one for letting his readership off easy any more than Blake was, so there’s a fair amount of sympathetic resonance to be gleaned from every pairing of the former’s pictures with the latter’s words in these pages. This is portraiture that showcases the lost and the forlorn, absolutely, but whether or not that’s because these folks are considering Blake’s writing, or are simply reflective of it naturally is something I can’t quite nail down — and maybe I’m not supposed to be able to. Either point of view works, that much I know for certain, so no matter what Zenick’s intention is, he achieves it — and how often does a sentiment like that even make concrete sense?

And that brings us to another consistent strength of Zenick’s work : it’s interpretive on its face (pun only slightly intended), but it’s never deliberately oblique. He starts with a firm concept and executes it to the proverbial “T,” but his concerns, and subsequent approaches to expressing them, are inherently non-dictatorial. He never goes so far as to tell you what to think or how to analyze his creative output, but he’s never less than absolutely upfront at the same time. This belies a fair amount of confidence on Zenick’s part in his own abilities, sure, but it also shows tremendous faith in his readership, and in their ability to pick up what he’s throwing down. You never feel lost in a Zenick ‘zine, then, this one being no exception, but you literally never know what’s waiting for you on the next page, either — only that it will logically and aesthetically flow from what’s come before and into what’s coming next.

It could fairly be said, then, that there is a trajectory to be found in this work, although not necessarily a linear one. Each image tells a story in and of itself, but taken in succession and in total, a larger picture emerges : of a fallen humanity crumbling when faced with the intractable edifice of visionary insight, perhaps — or, if you prefer, of a fallen humanity that bears out the wisdom of said insight by dint of both their existence and their approach to it. Take your pick, or go with them both, it matters not — this ‘zine is pearls before swine either way. And I say that as one of the swine myself.

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Proverbs Of Hell is available for $6.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half Distro at : https://www.spitandahalf.com/product/proverbs-of-hell-by-william-blake-and-jeff-zenick/

Review wrist check – Hamilton “Jazzmaster Viewmatic” riding a Lone Star Treasures ostrich leg leather strap in royal blue.

“Unexplained” — But Hardly Inexplicable

You’ve gotta hand it to Theo Ellsworth — nobody else does what he does.

Oh, sure, other people draw and make comics and all that, but nobody draws the way he does, employing the elements he does, in service of anything like the purpose he achieves. Ellsworth — who hails from Missoula, Montana, where he’s not “part” of the local comics scene so much as he is the local comics scene — combines influences that fall along a continuum that ranges from Native American folk and woodcut art to Charles Addams/Gormenghast to downright alien to produce art that both comes from, and takes you to, someplace else altogether. And although his long-running series Capacity is over and done with, he’s nowhere near done creating art.

And art is what his latest ‘zine, Unexplained — self-published, as ever, under Ellsworth’s own Thought Cloud Factory label, and presented in a generous, oversized magazine format — is all about. Dated 2018 but only now making its way to some of the better indie distributors out there, this is a 40-page collection of ink drawings that each, in their own way, tell a story, and occasionally come together, or are juxtaposed next to each other, to do the same. The inside title page labels this as being “issue one,” but whether there are truly more forthcoming, or this ends up standing alone, either way it represents and unqualified success.

I think the thing I appreciate most about Ellsworth’s art, besides the precision of its execution, is its overall tone — his characters are subject to frightening, even harrowing, situations and ordeals, but there’s a kind of playfulness to it all, a sense that everything’s going to be alright, maybe even is alright already, and that the personages and/or entities of one stripe of another that he’s depicting are maybe even in on the joke, so to speak, at least in the abstract. It’s not fair to say his work is “easy” in any respect, apart from being wonderfully easy on the eyes, but nothing he depicts is the end of the world, no matter how much it may feel (and, crucially, look) like it. You can take your time with this work, relax with it, absorb it in every intricate detail — then come back down to the world you know, hopefully with a fresh charge of “new perspective” serum injected directly into your brain by way of the optic nerve.

Which, my oh my, does sound rather pretentious, doesn’t it? But it’s the utter lack of pretense in Ellsworth’s illustrations that make them stand out every bit as much as their undeniable technical proficiency does. Welcome to worlds unknown, then, but not overtly hostile — to rich, conceptually-dense waters where you won’t be allowed to drown. Emjoy the ride, and by all means — go at your own pace.

Certainly there is detail aplenty herein to not only ponder over and absorb but to savor, and freed (largely) from narrative’s hard-and-fast strictures, Ellsworth is afforded ample opportunity to simply “wow” you by wondering where all this baffling beauty comes from, and how it manages to make its way not just onto paper, but into print. “So-and-so makes comics that are unlike anyone else’s” is, let’s face it, music to the ears of the discerning observer and/or reader, but that’s just a starting point with Theo Ellsworth — which is why I started this review by stating as much. But he’s just as concerned with where he takes you as he is in finding the most memorable method of conveyance to get you there. It helps for a reader to care just as much, if not more, about the journey than about the destination, then, but rest assured : you’ll not only get there, you’ll be amazed at the sights you see along the way.

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Unexplained is available for $12.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/unexplained.html

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 pleased indeed if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing you kind attention to : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

A Cucumber Finds Himself In A Pickle In Josh Pettinger’s “Goiter” #5

For good, ill, or a little bit of both, there are precious few things we can really, well and truly, rely on in today’s comics world — and many would argue that the same is true for the wider world in general. You know, the one they call “real.” But we’re not really hear to talk about that, so let’s get back to comics.

Whether we’re talking the medium or the industry, comics are in a state of flux. Where and how the dust settles, and what things will look like once it does, nobody knows. The mainstream is freaked out by all this uncertainty, of course, but for independent and self-publishing cartoonists, this has always been the way of things. Print a few too many books you can’t sell, you don’t make rent. Have a nice weekend tabling at a show, suddenly you’ve got beer money. There are no constants apart from the fact that there are no constants — unless and until you find yourself a publisher that believes in your work and is willing to put up the cost of printing and distribution themselves, that is.

After taking on the burden of all that all by his lonesome for this part half-decade or so, Josh Pettinger appears to have found himself in precisely that much-sought-after position : Tinto Press has stepped up to the plate and, as of the fifth and latest issue, is now publishing his acclaimed one-man anthology series, Goiter. And they’re doing it in full color, to boot! One hopes, then, that he has found that ever-elusive something to rely on.

As for the rest of us, well — those who have been following it know that Goiter has been a reliably interesting and quirky (but not, thankfully, in a terribly self-conscious way) series from the outset, and that Pettinger’s character-driven stories are consistently delightful and bewildering. At first he was perhaps wearing his Clowes and Ware influences on his sleeve a bit too obviously, but as time has gone on he’s become more and more confident in his own visual narrative skills and now structures his stories his own way, writes dialogue his own way, and has a singular cartooning style that occupies a unique space halfway between emotive and deadpan — all of which coalesces to splendid effect in his title story this time out, “William Cucumber.”

On paper, a long-form strip about a late-teens protagonist who gets canned from his job renting chairs at the beach, moves into a tent in the backyard of his divorcing parent’s home, takes up smoking so he can cash in on being a human guinea pig only to find there’s no money in that racket but he’s hooked on nicotine anyway, and undertakes an impromptu murder investigation with the daughter of his mom’s new boyfriend sounds like a string of utterly incongruous plot elements strung together — and hey, I suppose it is, but Pettinger, as always, finds a way to make it work by focusing on character so ferociously that he’s able to “sell” readers on any set of circumstances said character finds themselves in. It’s a gutsy move, but it’s one that’s always worked to one degree or another over the course of this series’ lifespan, and it works to a very high degree in this new issue. Particularly as questions about how “real” any or all of this even is come to the fore, the tension between the deliberately blase figure drawings and the potentially-hallucinatory subject matter gives readers plenty of reason to question, in the words of Freddie Mercury, “is this the real life — is this just fantasy?” It’s a low-key barnburner of a story, and one of Pettinger’s best efforts to date.

I was somewhat less enamored with the short-form backup strips that round out the issue, but I do see what Pettinger was going for with them — I just found them rather slight and maybe a bit too convenient/forced in terms of execution. But that’s a small gripe when we’re talking about a comic that boasts a superb main feature and terrific production values. Josh Pettinger is creating something really special with this comic, and if you haven’t been picking it up already, now that it’s more widely available, this would be the perfect time to start doing so. Single-creator anthologies are considered by some to be a bit of an anachronistic throwback, I know, but Goiter proves that it’s a format with plenty of gas in the tank yet.

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Goiter #5 is available for $5.99 from the Tinto Press website at https://tintopress.com/product/goiter-5/

Review wrist check – Ocean Crawler “Paladino Wavemaker” green dial model riding an Ocean Crawler black stingray leather strap. And no, your eyes don’t deceive you, that’s the sleeve of my winter jacket brushing up against the watch. We got seven inches of sloppy, wet snow here in the Twin Cities yesterday — yup, on October 20th. How nuts is that?

A Stark And Harrowing “Vision”

Sex and death — there’s just no separating them, is there? I mean, sure, one is fun and the other most assuredly isn’t, but it’s an awareness of our own mortality, and the fear of same, that elevates the sexual impulse in humans to something beyond the mere biological imperative of the animal kingdom. Rightly or wrongly — and I would argue it’s more the latter — humans view the act of producing offspring not just as a continuation of the species, but as a shot at some kind of personal immortality for themselves : a chance to prove that they existed, that they mattered, because they weren’t just passing through life, they actually left something behind.

Message for any kids who might be reading this : next time your parents try to convince you that the act of raising you is some inherently selfless or noble thing, tell ’em to fuck off — you’re doing more for them than they are for you, because you’re giving them a legacy. Without you, they’d actually have to achieve something lasting by dint of their own efforts. Which probably makes me sound intrinsically anti-parent, I suppose, but this isn’t about what I believe — rather, it’s about stating plainly what we all know, but seldom speak aloud : for human beings, the ultimate goal of sex is to literally escape death. But in the end, of course, there’s still no doing that.

For Eleanor, however — the protagonist in cartoonist Julia Gfrorer’s new book Vision, recently collected in a single volume by Fantagraphics after Gfrorer self-published it in serialized form — kids appear to be out of the question, as she’s something of a (forgive the term, but) spinster, her fiance having lost not only his own life in war but, by extension, hers as well. This story, you see, appears to be set in vaguely Victorian or Edwardian times and so, with no prospects for marriage or children on the horizon, Eleanor is relegated to staying in her brother’s home, where she’s assigned the thankless task of caring for his shut-in wife.

With that premise in mind, then, here’s a hypothetical question for you, dear reader : robbed of all chance at intimacy, first by death and then by circumstance, what lengths would you go to in order to find it? And who would you find it with?

Your bedroom mirror may not be your first choice, but who knows? Maybe in a pinch it would do, especially if there were someone on the other side of it, as seems to be the case with Eleanor’s. Who they are, where they are, how she can possibly get to them — these are questions Eleanor has as her “relationship” unfolds, ones that are exacerbated after she’s forced to make a choice about whether or not to have what’s surely a primitive and potentially dangerous form of ocular surgery, but they’re secondary to sheer need : for acceptance and love and connection, sure, but also to provide all of those things. With the man she was to marry gone and the children she hoped to have with him never coming to be, Eleanor’s mirror, and the voice within it, become a repository for every aspect of her love that has gone hitherto unexpressed. And while it’s plenty dangerous enough to assign all your desires and needs onto one person, foisting them all upon an inanimate object with potentially murky intentions may just be a ticket to emotional suicide.

Ah, yes — suicide. Eleanor makes a rather lackluster attempt at it in the early going here, but as things progress, we begin to wonder if there may be someone else she’d like to see dead —specifically her sister-in-law. The wretched old shrew certainly seems to be of a mind that Eleanor is slowly poisoning her, but she’s clearly not right in the head — what’s less certain, however, is whether Eleanor’s own mindset is any better. Unreliable narrators are one thing, but Gfrorer is upping the ante considerably here, given that we are likely seeing the world precisely as Eleanor does, in fact, see it herself — but that perception may very well be out of step with actual consensus reality.

Gfrorer’s cartooning, vaguely reminiscent of From Hell-era Eddie Campbell at its margins, is perfectly suited to this kind of tale, as her linework is as fragile and delicate as the health (physical and mental) of her characters — her dense cross-hatching and well-chosen placement of shading and texturing effects are primarily utilized in service of providing mood and atmosphere, while very often her figure drawing borders not quite on the insubstantial, but certainly on the ephemeral — general contours of form privileged over specific physical details to lend each person an air of mystery within a narrative already packed to the gills with precisely that. This world and its people, then, as delineated by Gfrorer, are equal parts lovely and scary, much like Eleanor’s affair with her mirror — and at the risk of sounding like a pretentious ass, the opposing emotional polarities offered by the thrill of freedom and the fear of the unknown that compel our erstwhile heroine to position herself and perform according to the voyeuristic commands of a disembodied voice are reflected perfectly as a kind of internal tension between form and function in Gfrorer’s artwork, best exemplified in her “scrawled” but undoubtedly precise line.

All of which, I suppose, brings us back to our original sex and death dichotomy — the central concern not just of this work but, in the eyes of this critic, of Gfrorer’s entire body of work. They might not be entwined in precisely the same way for Eleanor as they are for people in more, shall we say, conventional relationships, but they remain entwined regardless : after all, that mirror could just as easily be a portal to Hell as it could be to the man of her dreams and his magic castle. Or she could just be seeing —- and hearing — a distorted reflection of herself, conjured up by her profound sense of not only loss but longing. The picture is muddled, but by the time all is said and done, Julia Gfrorer’s Vision has never been more clear.

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Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “Arne” sailcloth-effect strap in olive green.

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’ve be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Meet The OCDemon : “Marie And Worrywart”

A lot of people — myself included — have that little voice in our heads. What we don’t have is a little blob on our shoulders.

Marie, the protagonist in Toronto cartoonist Jenn Woodall’s Marie And Worrywart, isn’t so lucky : her anxieties — specifically, the various manifestations of near-crippling OCD that have taken root in her mind — have externalized themselves and become her constant companion. And wouldn’t you know, this little creature they’ve congealed into simply will not shut the fuck up. But can it be prevented from growing?

Anxiety isn’t unique to cartoonists or to comics readers, of course, but damn if it’s not well-represented within our ranks, so Woodall’s willingness to address it head-on is certainly welcome, as is her overall level-headed approach. No matter how big and boisterous Worrywart becomes, she has a deft touch that somehow manages to draw attention to the fact that it (and the things that make “it” up) are blown entirely out of proportion, while never minimizing its effects nor casting Worrywart’s host, Marie, in anything less than a sympathetic light. This is no easy task : Worrywart’s a cartoonish figure, necessarily exaggerated for purposes both comic and far less so, and so it would be damn easy to lose the delicate balance this mini maintains and to just err on the side of “relax, kid, ya really got nothing to worry about.” It’s to Woodall’s credit that she avoids this sort of condescension by default while also offering practical guidance without ever once sounding either preachy or cloying. In short, she probably only had one way to pull this off exactly right, tonally speaking, and she not only manages to do so, she makes it look effortless when, in fact, it’s anything but.

Additonally, Woodall’s cartooning in this Silver Sprocket-published mini is exceptionally fluid and exudes a timeless quality : not overly stylistic by any means, but fundamentally strong in every aspect, its effects are accentuated by her wonderfully thought-out use of color, a truly anxious red offering stark contrast to the blacks and reds of the “real” world. Woodall’s page layouts and sense of composition take care of the rest, balancing the practical and fantastic (not always in the good sense of that term) in a way that invites the eye to take everything in and avoids visual information overload no matter how much the situation may allow for precisely that. There’s a real sense of both confidence and discipline in this art that directly bypasses the need to be flashy in favor of simply doing what’s right — and I always feel like we could do with a little bit more of this in today’s indie comics world.

This book isn’t just a therapeutic tool for readers, though — it was also a therapeutic exercise for its creator, and one that’s had some legs : originally printed and distributed in Woodall’s native Canada “way back” in 2018, this new second edition gives it another well-deserved lease on life, and it’s almost certain to end up in the hands of more people who will benefit from knowing that they’re far from alone and that there’s room for laughter on their road to healing. Woodall doesn’t trivialize Marie’s suffering by any stretch, nor does she offer “magic bullet” solutions to it, but she offers methods for coping with it that don’t insult a reader’s intelligence and don’t drain all the joy and wonder out of life — even a life where those things are in short supply.

This is an absolute gem of a comic, then, no doubt about it — and hey, it’s a public service, to boot.

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Marie And Worrywart is available for $5.00 from Silver Sprocket Bicycle Club at https://store.silversprocket.net/products/marie-and-worrywart-by-jenn-woodall

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53,” in the sleek-looking “Blackout Edition” that I can’t seem to keep off my wrist for more than a couple of days.

Two From Le Dernier Cri : John Broadley’s “Wild For Adventure”

It’s a pretty cool thing, when you think about it : making comics like nobody else is making. And it’s especially cool to do it within a framework that’s about as tried and true as it gets.

All of which is me letting you know that the (extremely) short-form stories presented in Johan Broadley’s 2016 Le Dernier Cri book, Wild For Adventure, are both deliciously weird — and strangely mundane. We know this world he portrays — we’ve just never had it shown to us like this before. So yes, at first glance these are every bit the vaguely traditional gag strips they appear to be — until they’re not. And there’s always one or two off-kilter things in each that are guaranteed to shake your perceptions just a bit. I’m reminded, crazy as this may sound, of the so-called “creepy crawls” the Manson family used to engage in, wherein they would enter somebody’s house or apartment and move everything by a couple of inches forward or back, to the right or the left. When the person who lived there would get home, their equilibrium would be off by just enough — but never enough to make them consciously aware of what was wrong. B&E aside, you’ve gotta admit — that’s a pretty ingenious way to alter somebody’s entire friggin’ world.

And if there’s one thing Broadley is playing at here, it’s the altering of perceptions — at first glance, for instance, you could be forgiven for thinking we were in Michael Kupperman-esque territory here in a general sense, but that only lasts for a few pages after opening this pocket-sized volume’s silk screen cover to view its rich offset-printed pages. Not only is Broadley’s art far more fluid and way less photo-referenced than Kupperman’s, it’s utilized to entirely different effect. Yeah, Broadley wants you to laugh — and succeeds in getting you to do so — but he’s also out to subvert both expectation and form. The predictable never proves to be so; the established exists only to demonstrate that nothing really is. And if it seems like I’m being vague, I assure you — that’s entirely by design. To give anything about this book away is almost to give away too much.

Certainly, the quality of the cartooning here is above reproach — Broadley has all the basics mastered, and infuses everything with a kind of deadpan personality that takes you off guard even as it quietly dazzles with its sheer technical prowess. His linework is crisp, his textures and shading borderline-elegant, his composition impressive without drawing undue attention to itself. And yet there’s an undercurrent of ingenuity to it all that’s difficult to place until you realize that it’s deployed just as successfully in service of the absurd as it is in service of the everyday — and when the two combine in a given panel (every page being a single-panel illustration), the results are more than a bit magic : as if a quick injection of the bizarre was what was missing all along, and everything and everyone was clearing the way for it in advance. Think of a long-lost relative coming home for dinner — only to discover a place had been set for them the whole time.

Perhaps I’m straining for metaphors here, but that’s only because something singular can occasionally be singularly difficult to describe. Even when it feels like it shouldn’t be. Fortunately, Broadley dispenses with any and all notions of what “should” or “shouldn’t” happen in one of his strips almost immediately, and just keeps going from there.

“Going where?” is, of course, the next natural question, but again the answer is not an easy one — in a pinch, I’d say “to where we’ve been all along,” but that only holds true if we knew where we were in the first place. In a John Broadley comic, nothing is more elusive than certainty, but that doesn’t mean we’re lost — only that anything can happen anywhere and at any time, no matter how pedestrian a set of circumstances may appear.

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Wild For Adventure is available for $12.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/wildadventure.html

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 check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse