To Boldly Go — : Alexander Laird’s “Oubliette”

Purely as physical objects, Alexander Laird’s self-published comics are things of exquisite beauty : lovingly riso-printed, uniquely formatted, conceptualized to a degree that’s flat-out exacting, they stand as a testament to both dedication and determination in equal measure, their execution representing an inherently harmonious marriage with the singular creative vision behind them. I honestly don’t know of any cartoonist who works as hard at holistically integrating the creative with the technical, whose inner artist is so “in tune” with their outer artisan. Each of Laird’s books has the look and feel of an object carefully made by hand.

That being said, anything that is presented this well needs, by default, to feature content that lives up to its presentation, and that can be tough when you’re pulling out all the stops as far as production values go. Laird’s latest, Burg Land 1 : Sleemore Gank, certainly earned high marks across the board from me, but his earlier effort, Oubliette, leaves perhaps a bit to be desired on that score — but is still plenty fascinating as a prima facie example of a legit autuer finding their footing as they go along and developing the themes that would come to be regarded as central concerns in their work.

Stated less pretentiously, this feels like a “warm-up exercise” for ideas and approaches that would eventually end up becoming fleshed out more fully later. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that — in fact, it’s crystal clear that Laird’s been in firm possession of a vision for what he wants to achieve in this medium from the outset, it’s simply that this largely-wordless tale of explorer/academic Jest The Scholar venturing through the ruins of a thought-lost civilization and having to survive a monstrous onslaught of, well, monsters is, all told, a less-thoroughly-realized version of what this same cartoonist would do next.

Which, I admit, makes this review something of an unfair exercise on its face — after all, if I’d read this first, I might very well have been blown away by it, rather than “merely” being mightily impressed. On the plus side, though, there’s no question that I did still find it mightily impressive, so if Laird happens to read this at some point, trust me when I say : a win is a win. I still found this to be a remarkable work in the truest sense. And while I may not recommend it as highly as Burg Land 1: Sleemore Gank, I think its status as a kind of blueprint for that comic means that it could very well especially be of interest to those who, like myself, read the latter first.

Or am I wrong about that? I mean, if you’re a Laird “newbie,” this is certainly a great place to start and it gives you a flavor for his utterly unique methodologies and sensibilities. By turns frightening and fun, and drawn in a style that both reflects and magnifies the ultimately-optimistic outlook of its insatiably curious protagonist, it’s a comic about learning and exploration that learns and explores the medium’s formalities and, more importantly, its possibilities in unison with its narrative. I invoked the term “holistic” earlier, and there’s absolutely no doubt that this is a breathtaking working example of that principle writ — and drawn — large.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, then : this is not a recommendation tempered by any sort of caution — it’s an enthusiastic and unreserved one. Sure, I liked Burg Land 1 : Sleemore Gank a bit more, but so what? I liked that more than just about anything I’ve read recently, and the list of “stuff I didn’t like quite as much” includes a lot of damn fine comics. This is one of them and, furthermore, one of the better ones at that.

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Oubliette is available for $12.00 from Alexander Laird’s website at https://sensitiveathletes.bigcartel.com/product/oubliette

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

Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year in Review : Top Ten Single-Issue Comics

And so it begins : with the end of the year breathing down our necks, it’s time to take stock of the best (by my estimation, at any rate) comics of 2021, broken down, as usual, into six different categories so as to avoid the goofy shit you find elsewhere — like, say, a 12-page mini having to “compete” against a 400-page graphic novel, or a book of reprinted material being judged by the same standard as all-new stuff. My goal is to get three lists done this week, then do three more next week, beginning with the TOP TEN SINGLE-ISSUE COMICS, which means stand-alone “floppy” comics or minis, or single issues of ongoing series which were one-offs — any series (limited or ongoing) which saw two or more issues released in 2021 will be eligible in the TOP TEN COMICS SERIES category. Sound good? Let’s do this :

10. God Bless The Machine By Connor McCann (Strangers Fanzine) – An acid-trip science fiction conceptual free-for-all that takes dead aim at vapid celebrity worship and global media consolidation while never forgetting to be a ton of fun along the way, McCann’s comic is equal parts timely as hell and decades ahead of its time. If you miss the days when comics were insane, fun and insanely fun, I’ve got good news : they’re back.

9. Birth Of The Bat By Josh Simmons (The Mansion Press) – Simmons’ latest “Bootleg Batman” comic continues his trend of de facto deconstruction by taking the character of the Caped Crusader to its logical extremes — which is to say, well past the point of disturbing absurdity. Where some are content to merely mine the so-called “Bat mythos” for all its worth, Simmons strip mines it — and yet always seems to have more to say on the subject.

8. Epoxy #6 By John Pham (Self-Published) – Another sumptuous riso-printed feast for the eyes from the modern master of hand-printed comics. Who can say no to more “J+K” hijinks, another installment of “Deep Space,” and fold-outs and inserts galore? I know I sure can’t. Long may this series continue.

7. BUM : Unsmooth #2 By E.S. Glenn (Floating World Comics) – Glenn blows the doors wide open with this formally experimental, genre-hopping tour de force that plays with convention in the best way possible : by utilizing it for the artists’ own ends. Shifting styles as frequently as it shifts tone and perspective, this is one of those comics that leaves you with more questions than answers while all the time making its own kind of highly-specialized “sense” along the way. Ambitious, multi-layered, and metatextual, this is auteur work of the highest order.

6. The Future Is An Open Mouth By Dustin Holland (Self-Published) – Speaking of auteur comics, Holland produces nothing but, and this represents probably the most successful synthesis of his idiosyncratic creative vision with the always-nebulous concept of reader “accessibility.” Which is to say, it’s fucking ecstatically weird, but you’re never lost within its hermetic “universe.” Like all the best art, its borderline-impossible to define what makes Holland’s work so special, you just know that it is.

5. Dear Mother & Other Stories By Bhanu Pratap (Strangers Fanzine) – Arguably the year’s most disturbing work both conceptually and visually, Pratap’s full-length debut challenges notions of identity, bodily autonomy, and intrinsic need on levels both macro and micro. If you don’t think there can be beauty in nihilism, think again, but be warned : the more you do think about this comic, the more sleep you’ll lose.

4. Burg Land 1 – Sleemore Gank By Alexander Laird (Self-Published) – The most imaginative sci-fi comic to come down the pike in a hell of a long time, Laird’s loosely-paced but tightly-plotted opening salvo of what promises to be a sprawling sci-fi opus is breathtaking on every level, creatively and technically, rivaling the riso production values of even the esteemed (and aforementioned) Mr. Pham. Sure, this comic is a clinic on the art of so-called “world building,” but it’s got more than enough heart to match its brains, and that makes all the difference.

3. Speshal Comics, Edited By Floyd Tangeman (Dead Crow) – Essentially a “bonus issue” of Tangeman’s groundbreaking Tinfoil Comix, and showcasing the work of many of the same cartoonists who have appeared in that anthology, the strips in this one all honor the late Bay Area artist/tagger Evan “Spesh” Larsen, and while I admit I never knew the guy, this comic sure makes me wish that I had. This is no mere “tribute” publication, however — rather it’s a celebration and examination of an artist, his ethos, and his body of work as seen from multiple points of view, and well and truly runs the stylistic and tonal gamut. “Spesh” himself may be gone, but this comic is a monumental legacy in and of itself.

2. Scat Hog Volume One By Cooper Whittlesey (Self-Published) – Every year it seems a comic comes from out of left field and knocks me for a wallop. This year, that dubious “honor” belonged to this collection of Whittlesey’s straight-from-the-id strips, scrawled with all the energy and urgency of self-exorcism and not so much released into the world as it was thrust upon it. Still, in my defense, nothing can really prepare anybody for this torrential onslaught of unleashed artistic imperative. Shock and awe, baby — emphasis on the latter.

1. Crashpad By Gary Panter (Fantagraphics) – A bit of a cheat here in that this is an oversized hardcover book as well as a “floppy” single issue, but if anything is worth bending the rules for it’s this, Panter’s love letter to the underground. And while it holds true to many of the precepts of its artistic progenitors, it never takes the easy way out by wallowing in nostalgia — instead, Panter takes inspiration from the past to do what he does best : show us a way forward. Far out? Sure. But don’t be surprised if this one takes you on a journey inside, as well.

Okay, that’s one down, five to go — next up we’ll be looking at the TOP TEN COMICS SERIES. Until then, a reminder that my Patreon is updated three times a week with whatever is on my mind on the subjects of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Depending on who you are, your support either is or would be greatly appreciated. https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants : “Burg Land 1 – Sleemor Gank”

It takes some real guts to set your comic 100 years after the fall of an imaginary civilization readers aren’t familiar with in the first place — and to give said comic a title composed of made-up words — but if there’s one thing you can’t say about Alexander Laird, it’s that he’s a cartoonist lacking in either ambition or confidence. And that confidence and ambition carries over into every aspect of his new self-published number, Burg Land 1 – Sleemore Gank,

Indeed, from its masterful use of riso printing to its slick publication design (including a deliberately tor-out page that, bet you anything, was fully drawn regardless) to its immersive narrative to its idiosyncratic, colored-pencil art to its thick supplemental insert written entirely in a coded alien language invented by the artist that, if you wish, you can take the time to decipher fully, this is clearly and obviously a work that has been executed in exact accordance with its initial conceptualization. It’s fucking breathtaking across the board, and my hat is off to Laird for this, no exaggeration or hyperbole, monumental achievement.

Anyway, it would appear that whatever Burg Land was, it’s over with by this, the first issue, and it’s up to intrepid explorers such as our protagonist, one Baida Bandorious, to discover both what the hell happened and how the other half lives by means of hot air balloon expedition to parts far and wide. That’s all a tricky wicket in and of itself, of course, but when you consider than every city that remains on this used-to-be world is housed atop its own towering, lumbering, decidedly alien giant, well — that’s when the scope of the dilemma faced by those such as Baida, who would try to make sense of this entire scenario, comes into view. Each giant is entirely unlike the others in terms of appearance, and each city is entirely unlike the others in terms of culture, customs, and practices. Diversity abounds atop the remnants of Burg Land, then, but pluralistic multi-culturalism, well — not so much.

Okay, sure, we’ve got some allegorical “cautionary tale” stuff going on here, but Laird is in no way heavy-handed about it — the overall tone and temperament of his work is as light and deft as the even-weight line of his drawings and the delicacy of his rich color scheme. The aesthetic values of this comic are well and truly inseparable from its narrative values, which means of course that the inverse is also true. I yammer on at great length on this site about so-called auteur comics, well, this is the apex and perhaps even apotheosis of that term — it simply doesn’t get any more auteur than this, to the point that some new sort of designation, one that encompasses every aspect aspect of a comic’s production both creatively and technically, may be required. Don’t ask me what that would be, but as I hold this comic in my hands I am fully and keenly aware that it’s one of those things , like John Pham’s Epoxy, that take the idea of full artistic control from start to finish to unprecedented heights.

So, yeah, Laird is in some pretty select company as a cartoonist and, in the broader sense, as a creator, but at the end of the day what matters most is whether or not this project can stand on its own — and so far that not only seems to be the case, it seems to be the only possible way to envision this work even, well, being. That sounds grandiose as all get-go, I’ll be the first to admit, but apart from telling a story by means of sequentially-arranged art and text, this is not a comic that owes much of anything to what other people have done with this medium. Indeed, so singular is the rulebook that it’s playing by that Laird can literally stop the action halfway through to expound upon the history and geography of this fictitious world for 20-ish pages, all written in that complex cipher very few people will take the time to decode mentioned earlier, then jump right back into the main narrative without missing a beat. Don’t ask me how that works, because I have no real idea, but if I had to hazard a guess I would say such a deliberate flouting of the norms of traditional storytelling can only succeed when there is an iron-clad creative vision propelling the entire work forward. If there’s any slack in your act, a comic like this will expose it in a frigging heartbeat — there’s no slack in Laird’s act.
And to think — even though, okay, this world is over, this is only the beginning of this series. Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, but I know it’ll be unlike anything we’ve experienced before because it already is. Chances to get in on the ground floor of projects that bear all the hallmarks of being once-in-a-lifetime artistic events don’t come along too often — you’d be a fool to pass on just such an opportunity here.

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Burg Land 1 – Sleemore Gank is available for $17.00 directly from Alexander Laird at https://sensitiveathletes.bigcartel.com/product/sleemor-gank-burg-land-1

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 indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse