Several years ago, Minneapolis-based cartoonist David Tea worked at the comic shop nearest my home, where I am something of a “regular,” and to the best of my knowledge that was the only place that he sold his beyond-lo-fi comics, neatly stacked at the counter, each of them looking like they were run off a printer at Kinko’s, then cut and stapled by hand — which I’m fairly sure is exactly how they were made. Then, one day, he wasn’t working there anymore, and how one was supposed to obtain these utterly baffling little ‘zines became as mysterious a proposition as their contents, given that the only “distribution network” Tea seemed to employ was hustling them in person.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw that an apparently-randomly-selected work from Tea’s oeuvre, the 2005-produced Five Perennial Virtues #2, had been reprinted in the here and now of 2018, and made available for purchase through Austin English’s Domino Books website. Furthermore, this is no “ordinary” re-issue — our guy Dave has padded things out by including another older story, “Raking Leaves” (originally released as a stand-alone mini), as well as some new material. I subsequently discovered that Mr. Tea (sorry, I couldn’t resist) also has a smattering of more recent comics for sale on Amazon as Kindle downloads (or whatever the term is), but that’s another matter for another time. Suffice to say, Dave is branching out, or at least trying to, and it’s long overdue, because people outside the Twin Cities deserve access to this guy’s absolutely singular creative output, as well.
As regards Five Perennial Virtues #2 in particular, what the hell — it’s as good an introduction to “The World According To Tea” as anything, but be warned : these comics don’t just eschew the principles of what makes for “good” cartooning, they very much appear to the the product of someone who either doesn’t know what those principle are, or simply doesn’t give a flying fuck about them. In other words, this is awesome work, in the truest, dictionary-definition sense of the term. All I can do is try my best to prepare you for it.
Dave begins his day by walking the streets of Dinkytown, the neighborhood centered around the University of Minnesota campus (which is now nothing like it’s pictured here and has been homogenized into a disgusting edifice of hyper-capitalism, all chain businesses and overpriced high-rise rental housing), looking around intently for lost/discarded pennies as he makes his way to his favorite coffee shop to meet a “friend.” Along the way, he gives us a lecture/harangue on the history and metallic composition of pennies, finds a five dollar bill (considerably more than he was bargaining for), goes off on a tangent about people growing lawns on their roofs, and warns us about his pal’s sour temperament before we meet — uhhmmm — “him.”
I put that last word in quotation marks because his coffee shop “date” is, in fact, a plant — one with whom he communicates by means of “mental telepathy.” Their “conversation” is short, though, because Dave has to go help his elderly neighbor — lay out a lawn on her roof. This shit is positively getting circular at this point. His cousin helps him out because he’s got a truck and can haul the turf over there from the gardening store, and after the job is complete, neighbor lady pays them in root beer. If this all sounds inexplicable enough (which it is), rest assured that it actually plays out in even weirder fashion, since Tea has a habit of “pausing” in the midst of his threadbare “narrative” to regale us with double-page spreads that seem to have only the most tangential (if any) relation to the proceedings, and often appear to have backgrounds cobbled together from old-school “clip art” catalogues, all diagonal lines/bars and simple diagrammatic designs. The reasons for this are known only to the cartoonist himself — but the same is probably true of everything else on offer here, so it really does all seem of a piece, even if it doesn’t exactly flow.
This conceit reaches its dizzying apotheosis in “Raking Leaves,” wherein Tea heads out to his backyard to perform the titular task, only to have the “story” just plain stop and be replaced by painstakingly-rendered illustrations of various leaves superimposed over one of those “clip art” patterns I was just droning on about. This really only works in this “bumper volume” presentation because the first two strips (the one detailed previously as well as a brand new one, which features a visibly older and more haggard Tea conversing at a bar with the unusual symbol that you can see in the upper-left portion of the cover shown at the top of this review) pretty well prepare you for just about anything, but folks who bought the story in its original “single-issue” iteration probably still wonder both what they forked over their cash for and, crucially, why.
But you know what? Tea doesn’t owe them — or you, or me — a damn thing. This is a guy who seems to be making comics maybe not so much for an audience of one, but for an audience of whoever. He commits this stuff to paper (and draws it pretty well, it must be said) for the most un-pretentious, dare I say noble, reason of all : simply because it’s in his head and he wants to get it out there. If somebody else is interested enough to check it out, fair enough, but if not, that doesn’t seem to bother him, either. His part in the process is done with its creation, and what anybody makes of it is on them.
For my part, I found a lot of unassuming, dare I say it, magic hiding in plain sight in Five Perennial Virtues #2, and Tea’s deadpan-but-askew look at the smallest aspects of daily life has gone some way toward convincing me that, despite what most probably say and believe, there is still a potentially- limitless amount of wonder to be mined from even the most mundane aspects of existence. If you think that you’re ready and willing to experience reality through the eyes of somebody who isn’t jaded by ideas of what comics should or shouldn’t do or be, who simply does things the way he wants to do them because it never occurred to him to do them any other way, then I highly recommend you get a five dollar bill out of your wallet (or, better yet, find one laying around on the sidewalk) and send it to http://dominobooks.org/fivevirtues.html