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.

Two From Brian Canini : “Across The Diner”

A simple story, well told, is always worth its weight in gold — a sentiment that’s perhaps never been more true than in these troubled and troubling times — and when he’s really hit on a nugget of an idea, when he’s firing on all cylinders creatively, a simple story, well told, is precisely the kind of thing that Columbus, Ohio’s Brian Canini excels at. Guess what? In his latest self-published (under the auspices of his Drunken Cat Comics imprint) mini,  Across The Diner, he’s hit on a nugget of an idea and is firing on all cylinders creatively.

Still here? ‘Cuz, I mean, I just pretty well gave away the game, which — at least according to what passes for conventional “wisdom” — is supposed to be seriously poor form. Even if what you’re saying is true — which, in this case, it absolutely is — you’re expected to wait a bit, build up to it, all that good stuff. Still, since you’ve stuck around, I suppose I will, as well —

Meet Emily, a young-ish, likely professional, woman who’s out for a first date she, one assumes, set up on some app or other. The date doesn’t show. But someone else does — someone who appears to tick every box on her personal “girl of my dreams” list. Things could get interesting — or not — depending on what she does next. A leap of faith is in order, obviously — but you know how these things go : they’re pretty damn daunting. Unless you decide that they’re actually, ya know, not.

Have we been down this road a thousand times before? Of course we have. And are things like text messages as a storytelling crutch done to death in today’s comics? Of course they are. But can a cartoonist in his or her “zone” make even the most tried-and-possibly-tired conceits and concepts work to their advantage if they relax, don’t push too hard, and just follow their best artistic impulses and creative choices? Of course they can.

It occurs to me now that I’ve probably gushed out almost as many superlatives as this modest little comics contains words, but sometimes that’s the way it goes. Things hit you in the right way, ignite that little spark, and you just roll with it. So I’m rolling with it.

That’s precisely what Canini does here — nothing more, certainly nothing less. He rolls with it. His setting — our titular diner, in case you were wondering (I know, I know — you weren’t) — is perfect for his spared-down “classical cartooning” style, his characters belie the sort of intuitively-rendered facial expressions that only come when an artist really puts themselves in their heads, and he eschews trite nonsense like caption boxes for his protagonist’s internal monologue in favor of (yes! Rejoice!) actual thought bubbles. Yes, this is “only” and eight-page B&W number, but nevertheless — there’s a lot here to love.

Self-doubt, insecurity, second-guessing, trepidation, fear — again, these have all been done to death. But there’s a reason for that, isn’t there? I mean, to one degree or another, in one proportion or another, we can all relate to them. Or, rather, we can if conveyed correctly. Honestly. Authentically. Minus any fuss, muss, overkill, or understatement. It’s a tricky balance for such a simple thing, one that any given cartoonist has to get just right both visually and narratively. Brian Canini threads the needle here and crafts exactly what he set out to with this one.

Which was what again? Oh yeah — a simple story, well told. Very well told, in this case.

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Across The Diner is available for $1.99 from the Drunken Cat Comics website at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/products/29957878-across-the-diner

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

 

Two From Brian Canini : “Four Stories”

Apropos of perhaps nothing in terms of the overall scope of this review, but definitely worth a mention : Brian Canini is the most organized cartoonist around. Every few months, like clockwork, I get a nice little package from him containing his latest review submissions, complete with a little letter containing a brief synopsis of each. This is the kind of critical outreach that is very appealing to me and, I would guess, other critics, as it shows he is downright eager to have us check out his stuff, and he’s always been more than magnanimous about any critiques I may have about his work, taking them in the constructive manner in which they’re intended. And if that isn’t a natural segue right there, I don’t know what is.

Cutting to the chase, then, one of the two new minis from his own Drunken Cat Comics imprint that I sat down to read immediately is entitled Four Stories, and it’s exactly what you would think it is given its moniker — a brisk little solo-creator anthology that packs a quartet of punchy yarns into one eight-page package. Which is a bit curious given that his earlier Two Stories had twice the page count, but I digress — I’ve got a briefly-abandoned segue to get back to.

And on that note, yeah, this is a mixed bag that seems to offer no particular thematic “connective tissue” apart from the fact that all of the strips are, as you’ve no doubt intuited by this point, short. Hollywood Tears is likely the standout of the bunch, a letter home from a would-be starlet in La-La Land that draws stark distinctions between the facade she’s presenting for the folks back in Smalltown,USA and the often-grim reality of, well, reality, and while it still relies upon irony for its impact — spoiler alert, these all do, to one degree or another — it’s utilized effectively here as a consistent through-line as opposed to taking the form of a “twist” ending.

Which, in fairness, isn’t always the end of the world, either, just predictable in its attempts to be anything but. If you can take that much as a given, though, then University Dining is a fun little number even if its observations in regards to the differences between men an women are obvious, but it’s worth keeping in mind that neither re-inventing the wheel nor rocking the boat are necessarily part of Canini’s remit vis a vis this project — he appears to be content with telling a few short tales in his trademark slightly-more-than-minimalist style that make you laugh a little, think a little, maybe even scratch your head a little. That’s a perfectly fine goal, in my opinion, and truth be told I think more cartoonists would benefit from the approach he takes of doing these smaller creative exercises either in conjunction with, or as a break from, longer-form, more ambitious projects — represented, in this case, by his ongoing near-future murder mystery series, Plastic People.

As far as the question of which side of the ledger the other two of our four stories fall on goes, I was reasonably charmed and touched by the (again) obvious ruminations on aging in the unimaginatively-but-accurately-titled Growing Up, but wholly unimpressed by the largely uninspired It’ll Happen To You, a listless strip that’s about exactly what it sounds like and probably should have just stayed an idea in a sketchbook, given it doesn’t do anything to flesh itself out much beyond that other than add some artistic polish.

Which means we’ve got one borderline-standout strip, two middling ones that err more toward the positive, and one clunker. For two bucks, that’s not bad, and marks the project as a worthwhile expenditure of your money and time (all ten minutes of it). I was glad enough to read it, and odds are good you’ll be, as well.

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Four Stories is available for $1.99 from the Drunken Cat Comics website at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/products/29730397-four-stories

Review wrist check –  I was wearing my Raven “Solitude” gray dial/black bezel model for this one, a favorite everyday beater with a real workhorse Seiko NH35A automatic movement and nice, bright lume on the dial markers, hands, and bezel — which, by the way, has more or less NO play whatsoever, a pretty impressive feature for a sub-$500 watch. It’s riding here on a Hirsch “Birch” strap from their “Performance” series, which means it’s both comfortable as hell and gives any watch it’s attached to a really distinctive look. Plus, it’s got a well-constructed deployant clasp. A great combination that dresses your watch up or down as needed for any situation.

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 02/09/2020 – 02/15/2020, Catching Up With Brian Canini

It’s been a little while since we took a look at what Columbus, Ohio’s Brian Canini is doing over at his Drunken Cat comics imprint, but seeing as how I just got a package from him in the mail last week, and finally had a chance to read through it all last night, now’s as good a time as any to put his work back under our metaphorical microscope —

Plastic People #11 is one of the best issues of the now-long-running series to date, as our “plastic surgery police” in a future LA continue their investigation of the city’s first murder in decades by talking to one of the last surviving REAL cops in town (an LA without police? Talk about a utopia) in order to figure out how to even begin gathering clues and identifying suspects in the first place. This title damn near lost me when Canini stepped away from the main storyline in order to indulge in some character-based asides, but with the benefit of hindsight, all of that makes sense from a plotting perspective now, and certainly his “clean-line” cartooning is only getting stronger and stronger as things go on. These are enjoyable enough to consume as single minis, but once it’s all collected, chances are it will be a very strong and cohesive read. Talking of which —

Plastic People Compendium #1 begins the process of doing precisely that by presenting the first three issues in one package at a price that saves readers a buck ($4.99 for the whole thing as opposed to $1.99 individually). It was lots of fun re-visiting these early installments and seeing just how precisely Canini is positioning his various and sundry chess pieces on the board, so if you haven’t checked this book out yet, here’s the perfect chance to do so. I get the feeling that Canini might be bowing to economic realities a bit here by going this route, but there’s no shame in that : this is a damn solid comic and anything that can be done to put it in more readers’ hands is something I fully support.

Plastic People Compendium #2 is, fair enough, “more of the same,” but as this re-prints issues 4-6 of the “original run,” it’s pretty well essential reading given that this is when the investigation at the heart of the series really kicks into gear and we start to become a lot more familiar with protagonists Gabe and Liz. Every bit as good as I remembered, maybe even a little better.

Blirps #4, unfortunately, is a case of familiarity breeding not so much contempt as just plain boredom. I got some pretty solid chuckles out of the first three issues of this series, but the premise of perpetually insecure long-necked mutant robots repeating self-help platitudes in their minds only to come up feeling tongue-tied and awkward in social situations has probably, at least for this critic, run its course. I get that cartoonists are almost always going to be looking to stick with a project that they feel might have some long-term commercial viability beyond comics, but I think that ship has sailed with these characters. You can only mine a single idea for so long, and it feels like whatever Canini had to say with this one has already been said. At only two bucks you might get your money’s worth out of this if you’re a newcomer, but if you’ve read the previous issues, seriously, there’s really not much here you haven’t seen before. Variations on a theme, and that’s about it. All of these comics, by the way, are available for purchase on the Drunken Cat Storenvy site at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

And that’s also about it for our Round-Up column for this week, apart from reminding you that it’s “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

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 06/09/2019 – 06/15/2019, Josh Pettinger And Some More Brian Canini

New stuff in the mail this week from the always-intriguing Josh Pettinger, who has a new issue of his self-published Goiter, plus I was finally able to track down the first ish through the auspices of a kind reader of this site — and one more new item from our friend Brian Canini that’s a hold-over from last week. So, yeah, plenty to get to —

Goiter #4 sees Pettinger return to black-and-white after the full-color third issue, but fear not : he’s trying a magazine format this time around, and the enlarged art looks great. As always, the Ware and Clowes influences are pretty strongly felt here, but I dig a cartoonist who wears his artistic lineage on his sleeve, and Pettinger is taking the ethos established by those earlier artists in new and intriguing directions — that direction this time being the story of “Wendy Bread,” a silently-suffering housewife with a philandering pro wrestler for a husband and an alt-right asshole with a hentai fixation and a very active right hand for a son. An uncomfortable study in how to become alienated and estranged from one’s own existence that comes dangerously close to victim-shaming, but avoids it rather deftly by not zeroing in too closely on title character Wendy’s gender specifically and instead utilizes her as a vehicle to get inside the whole “enabler” mindset. The back-up strip about an all-female fire department brigade than ends with then running away from danger is enough to make you think that Pettinger himself may have absorbed (inadvertently or otherwise) some of the Jordan Peterson bullshit he had to subject himself to in order to convincingly write Wendy’s son, but on the whole this is the sort of borderline-problematic book that forces you to think about what it’s presenting rather than actively promulgating for any particular point of view. Certainly well worth the $8.00 asking price — and hey, Pettinger’s got one of the most distinctive lettering styles around, as well, something he never seems to get enough credit for, but might now that it’s reproduced nice and big.

Going back a couple of years, we’ve got Goiter #2, which is in standard comic-book format and carries a $6.00 price. I’d never read this one before but it’s pretty clear this is where Pettinger really started coming into his own. “Henry Kildare” is the story of a ventriloquist whose relationship at home is on the rocks, so he takes a gig out of town and has a potentially life-changing experience — or maybe just an experience that shows how fucked-up his life really is. Comparisons to Clowes’ Caricature are inevitable, I suppose, but this comic does a lot less hand-holding of its readers and makes you puzzle things out, most notably how you feel about the whole damn story, on your own. Order it from the same place you order issue four, namely https://www.etsy.com/shop/Goitercomics

Goiter #1 carries a $5 price tag, but I don’t know where the hell you’re going to find it. This one has more of an Ivan Brunetti vibe to it, albeit with a clinical, dispassionate twist in terms of its narrative POV : a workaday schmuck turns to an internet message board for assistance in pursuing a very particular — and very peculiar — sexual fetish that involves a fake mugging as part of its premise, and from there, shit gets even weirder. Unintended consequences and the like have been done to death before, so while this is a very solid read that raises some troubling questions, it’s less unique than Pettinger’s later efforts and likely of far more interest to completists and bound-and-determined fans of his work than it would be to, say, a casual reader. I still dug it, but you can tell he’s still very much in the process of finding his own voice here, and doesn’t always manage to pull it off.

Finally, we check in with Brian Canini one more time, who had last week’s column all to himself — but at that point I hadn’t read this particular book, Glimpses Of Life #6. I’ve had an up-and-down relationship with this autobio title, feeling like it too frequently lacked a distinct focus and consequently came off as a hit-or-miss affair, but I’m pleased to report this latest issue is a direct hit, charting Canini’s evolution as a comics enthusiast and cartoonist. His efficient, no-frills drawing style really lends itself well to this material and helps Canini achieve the quietly remarkable feat of communicating his love for his medium of choice without sliding (or maybe that should be falling) into complete hagiography. Certainly the most accomplished installment of this series to date and a veritable bargain at $2.99. Get yourself a copy by heading over to http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

And so another week has come and gone, but I can’t finish up (okay, I choose not to finish up) without reminding you that this column is, as always, 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. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. I recently lowered the minimum tier pricing to a dollar a month, so seriously — what are you waiting for? You get terrific value for your money (there’s a ton of stuff up on there already), and your support also helps ensure a steady stream of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. Please take a moment to check it out over at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

 

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 06/02/2019 – 06/08/2019, Catching Up With Brian Canini

It’s never a bad time to have a look at the latest from Columbus, Ohio’s Brian Canini, and given that he’s got a veritable raft of new minis available, that “never a bad time” is, specifically, now. Each of the following is available for $1.99 from Canini’s Drunken Cat Comics self-publishing imprint at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

Plastic People #9 continues Canini’s long-form narrative about the first murder in decades to occur in a plastic surgery-obsessed future Los Angeles. This time out our pair of detectives’ search for clues, motives, or both takes them to the First Church Of The Surgeons, a part-cult/part-nudist camp extolling the virtues of surgically-achieved “perfection” with a kind of religious zeal because — well, it’s a religion. Agreeably illustrated in Canini’s skillfully minimalist style, a few curious choices in terms of grammar and syntax aren’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm for what is one of the best installments in a series that’s had many good ones, indeed.

Plastic People #10 brings us right to the scene of the crime, quite literally, but there’s a bigger problem, perhaps, than the murder itself — namely, there’s been a second murder, and since the victim this time out is one of Tinseltown’s “beautiful people,” the media is all over it. So “all over it,” in fact, that they’ve gone and spilled the beans about the first killing. Things are about to get either ugly, crazy, impossible to navigate — or all three. Probably even better than the previous issue, this comic is quickly establishing itself as one of the more ambitious in the entire small press/self-publishing scene.

Applewood Canyon #1 kicks off a new series Canini’s launched with an eye firmly on the emptiness of suburban life in Trump’s America, and while there’s a distinct Purge-esque feel to the proceedings, given this issue is almost all omniscient narration designed to lay out the scene and introduce some probably-principal players in the cast, we’re very much in “wait and see” territory here. Canini’s added ink washes to his visual “arsenal” here, so the comic has a richer, more “in-depth” look to it, but it’s simply too small a “sample size” in terms of story to get a real firm handle on what’s going on yet. It all seems intriguing enough, though, even if the object of satire/scorn here is pretty obvious.

Applewood Canyon #2 continues our descent into a suburban hellscape, this time throwing the focus on one character in particular who seems even sicker and more depraved than your average “gated community” dweller. Again, the Purge parallels leap right out at you , but this issue was good and creepy — not to mention nicely-drawn — so that’s good enough to hook me for more. My own views on suburbia are about the same as I presume Canini’s to be, so maybe I’m just pre-disposed to like this sort of thing, but I definitely get the feeling that he’s playing a “long game” with this concept, and I’m pretty eager to find out where he takes the whole thing. It’s not going to be pleasant — hell, it’s already anything but — yet there seems to be a wicked and sardonic sense of humor underpinning all the grimness here, as well. Count me in for the foreseeable future, even though I still have only the most cursory idea if where this series might be headed.

And with that, we put the wraps on this Wrap-Up. As always, we close with a reminder that this column is “brought to you” each and every week by my Patreon page, where for as little as a buck a month you can gets thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. I’d be very pleased to have your support, and you get terrific value for your money, so please take a moment to check it out and consider joining. Here’s your link :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/31/2019 – 04/06/2019, Aaron Lange And Brian Canini

Better late than —ah, let’s just get to it, with the latest from old friends of this site Aaron Lange and Brian Canini.

The insanely-talented (and sometimes controversial) Lange landed back on my radar with a package containing his three most recent comics ‘zines, issues 7, 8, and 9 of Cash Grab!, once a side-project that seems to be his main outlet now with his more traditional, narrative-driven publication, Trim, either being on an extended hiatus of sorts, or simply shuttered altogether. Sometimes less is more, and Lange, to his credit, seems to be “zeroing in” on his strong points with just one comic on his metaphorical “plate.”

Cash Grab! #7 bills itself as yet another entry in his occasional “sketchbook selections”series, but that title’s a bit misleading even if he does include obsessively-detailed portraits of the likes of “B”-movie actress Kari Wuhrer. To me, the more intriguing offerings in this issue were a moving tribute to a recently-deceased old high school friend, an “inside baseball” gag strip revolving around fellow cartoonists Ed Piskor and Emil Ferris, and “MK-Ultraman,” a bizarre mish-mash of the famous Japanese television superhero and the CIA’s supposedly-terminated mind control program — a favorite target of the great Mack White. This is a really strong installment in this series, with a shit-ton of variety — including some stuff to, of course, offend the sensibilities of the delicately-predisposed. Or, I suppose, anyone with a conscience.

Cash Grab! #8, billed as a “Deep Cuts” issue, continues the “mixed media” trend, and it continues to work — a strip entitled “The Aesthetics Of Grief,” focused on the public appearances of musician Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, after the death of their son Arthur is probably the standout selection on offer, but an examination of Lange’s own alcoholism and his inability to control it really hits home, as well. Portraits of well-known comics figures, actors in the film Boogie Nights, and Janeane Garofalo round out a very strong “sampler” of Lange’s creative output.

Cash Grab #9 carries the “sketchbook selections” tag again, this one tightly-focused on the world of porn, something Lange can never seem to stray too far from. As you’d no doubt expect, this one’s a bit more — ahem! — specialized in terms of its appeal, but Lange does a nice job of balancing out gag strips and adult industry anecdotes with eminently readable profiles of porn stars he likes, offering brief “highlights” of their careers along with the reasons he likes them to flesh out the basic biographical information he supplies. Pictures of an anonymous asshole (literally) and the like might put some folks off, sure, but this is still a fascinating, amazingly-rendered piece of work.

All three of these issues — as well as Lange’s other work still in print — can be obtained from The Comix Company at https://thecomixcompany.ecrater.com/c/1133596/aaron-lange-comix

Switching gears in a big way, albeit to a small book —

Plastic People #8 is the most recent installment in Brian Canini’s very solid sci-fi series. These minis seem to come out three or four times a year, and are always a welcome read — even if #7 was, in my view, a clunker. He’s back to form with this one, though, delivering the most interesting issue to date, as we return in earnest to the murder mystery set in a plastic surgery-obsessed future LA that is the central premise of this story. We meet the victim’s boyfriend in this one, and man, what a douchebag this guy turns out to be. Canini crams a lot into eight pages here, visually and narratively, and is really at his best, I think, working within the strictures of this format — one that confounds many, but that he consistently makes the most of with his brisk, sharp storytelling. His deceptively simple line art also communicates a lot with a little, and generally leaves me impressed. Always well worth the two dollar expenditure.

You can check out a preview of Plastic People #8, and explore Canini’s other works, at his Drunken Cat Comics website : https://drunkencatcomics.com/plastic-people-8-preview/

The one “advantage” to my doing a Round-Up column late is that you don’t have to wait as long for the next installment, of course, so do come back Sunday morning for that one, and in the meantime, if you’d care to help support my work, my Patreon page is filling up with a nice amount of content focused on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Your support there not only keeps it all going, but also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I’d be very gratified if you’d take a look and consider joining at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

“Two Stories” That Speak Volumes

Regular readers around here are used to seeing me looking at old friend Brian Canini’s works in my Weekly Reading Round-Up columns — short-form works like his tending to lend themselves well to one- or two-paragraph “capsule reviews” (such as the one that’ll be soon forthcoming for the newest issue of his ongoing Plastic People series) — but sometimes even the most modest mini can be well-served by a full-length examination, and his latest, Two Stories, definitely fits that bill.

I’ve always dug Canini’s minimalist cartooning style that utilizes a little to say a lot, his economic imagery drawing the eye precisely where it needs to go with just enough by way of “bells and whistles” to make things interesting though not nearly enough to make them cluttered, but even more than that it’s his thematic versatility that impresses me, and the apparent ease with which he can adapt his signature linework to narratives that vary wildly in terms of both form and content has never been on more clear display than it is here.

First up is “Hand City,” an innovative little number about a guy who wakes up to find a tiny town literally growing on his hand and the consequences, largely unintentional, that said discovery engenders. Observation, it’s said, inherently changes the observer and the observed both, and while that old adage may seem as oblique as it is accurate — one of those things we “know” to be true even if we couldn’t exactly tell you why — herein it’s laid out in explicit detail with precisely zero subtlety but, crucially, no real heavy-handedness, either. It’s a fine line Canini walks here and he does so with admirable grace and even, dare I say it, a dash of charm around the edges. It’s not a “feel-good” story, by any means, but it’s also something less than as tragic as one might expect — even when it is.

This is the point at which you tell me to make some fucking sense, man, but I’d prefer to have you read the comic and understand it for yourself.

The second story, “Baggage,” is the kind of thing we’ve seen before, sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t still weave a nice little spell, which this certainly does.  “Cartoonist — (read, authorial stand-in) — ponders what he’s done with his life, where he’s at, where he’s going, and the choices he’s made while walking through an airport terminal” is a premise that, at this point, is better-served when said cartoonist has something new to say, but barring that, if it feels old and familiar in comfortable ways rather than coming across as tired and down to death, that’ll do in a pinch, as well.

News flash — Canini doesn’t have anything remarkably new to say via this material, but he does have an admirably earnest, I don’t even hesitate to say endearing, way of saying it, and the entire thing’s a whole lot more contemplative and less overtly morose than admittedly navel-gazing exercises like this typically turn out to be. I enjoyed it, perhaps against all odds, and found I even wished it had gone on for a few more pages.

If Two Stories has one over-arching flaw it’s that there’s no real through-line that joins the tales (or, if you prefer, strips), nor any particular contrasts that can be gleaned from their juxtapositon — in other words, no real threads connecting these yarns — but they’re both thoroughly enjoyable reads and frankly I wish more self-publishing cartoonists would package their very short-form works together in affordable (as in two bucks!) little packages like this rather than waiting until they’ve got 100+ pages of them and then putting ’em together in a $15 (or more) book. This is an engaging, smart, eminently re-readable mini that you’ll be very glad to add to your library.  You can order it directly from Canini’s Drunken Cat imprint at https://drunkencatcomics.com/two-stories-preview/

Last thing : this review is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I offer exclusive thrice-weekly analysis of the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Your support helps me keep things going there, sure, but it also allows me to continue to provide free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. Please consider joining up today at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

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/