It’s interesting how things work out sometimes. Earlier today, I was having a “conversation” via twitter about the necessity of people who are generally thought of as being “outside” comics coming into our hopefully-happy little medium, making some sort of statement with it via their art for however long a period of time they wish, and then deciding whether or not they want to stick around, or go on to do other things. By my thinking, it’s always good to have a fresh set of eyes approach comics with no preconceived notions of what they “should” or “shouldn’t,” “can” or “can’t” do, if for no other reason than to shake up the sensibilities of those who have very definite ideas in regards to these subjects and others. Words and pictures in juxtaposition can do, be, or express anything, as I think we all know on some level — sometimes it just requires a comics novice, or even a temporary comics tourist, to remind us of that.
Enter the husband-and-wife team of Lily Thu Fierro and Generoso Fierro and their gorgeous, emotive, formally experimental new self-published ‘zine Vessel, a feast for the eyes and mind that weaves together dream, memory, and medicine into a beautiful but frightening quasi-hallucinatory tapestry that references no particular artistic influences outside of itself and doesn’t so much discard the rulebook as remain blissfully unaware of its existence. This is a comic that exists in a category all its own, which is to say : it really can’t — and shouldn’t — be categorized at all.
The division of labor on this obvious labor of love is in no way clear — I couldn’t tell you who drew it, who wrote it, or if they both did some of each — but in a way that makes a kind of thematic and artistic sense, as the demarcations between the “real” and “unreal” in this work are fluid, transitory, amorphous — a thickening cardiovascular wall is a recurring theme that grounds the work in linear time, but beyond that it’s fair to say all bets are off as past, present, and pure imagination dance around each other via a series of lushly-shaded colored pencil illustrations accompanied by a minimalist, economic interior monologue. There is a sense of our narrator/protagonist, Kim, existing apart from, outside, maybe even above her own body, of being both participant and observer of the vaguely-defined research study she’s participating in, and yet she never feels disconnected from either herself or events — there is intimacy in this alienation, and alienation in this intimacy.
As a result, what we have here is a unique approach to the art of the visual narrative, one that isn’t necessarily mysterious by definition, but plenty open to interpretation regardless — my one word of caution would be against trying to assemble this in start-to-finish order of occurrence on first reading and just letting this work take you where you feel it’s taking you. Trust me when I say you won’t be in the least bit confused by it, even while you have a tricky time describing it. As evidenced, I should think, by this review itself, which I’ve gotta admit is a slow-going thing on my end as I try my level best to communicate not so much the particulars of this work, but the sensations engendered by it.
Hell, I’m halfway tempted to ask “how’m I doing at that so far?,” but that would rather defeat the purpose. This is, you see, a comic that takes you places, and the most exciting thing about it is that they’re largely places you haven’t been before, and therefore lack a proper frame of reference for trying to express in purely verbal terms. Initially, I’d be inclined to say that means I’ve met my match here, but I prefer to think of it as having found a work (okay, been sent a work) that has done what very few others have : left me utterly speechless. I’m not sure if I should be grateful for that — but I can tell you in no uncertain terms that I am.
I don’t know much about these creators, other than what I’ve been able to piece together from their website. I take it they host a weekly radio show largely specializing in old-school ska and that Lily has a passing interest in comics, at least according to one of the posts they have up on there. What I do know for certain is this : even if they never make another comic themselves, they’ve given this medium a gift that can probably never be fully repaid.
At the risk of sounding grandiose, Austin English is a bit of a renaissance man in the truest sense of that term — through his utterly unique cartooning, his publishing efforts with Domino Books, his eclectic comics distribution service (I number myself among its regular customers), his position as editor of the must-read ‘zine But Is It — Comic Aht?, and his new wholesale venture, he’s one of the people most responsible for pushing this medium we all love forward in no small way. I recently had the chance to converse with him about where his various and sundry projects came from, where they’re at now, and where they’re going —
Four Color Apocalypse : For readers who may not be aware of Domino, what was the impetus behind its creation, and how long has it been a going concern now?
Austin English : I started Domino in 2011. The reason for starting it is pretty much the same reason I continue to do it: there’s so much work in comics that gets written off as ‘weird,’ or ‘not really comics,’ or ‘is this even a comic?,’ or (my absolute least favorite) ‘artsy’. These terms really do a disservice to cartooning, as they are used to describe work that, in any other medium, is pretty normal or commonplace. Comics, for whatever reason, resists even basic modernism…and maybe this is what continues to allow it to be vital. It’s still very pure, in a way. I’m a huge fan of the most simplistic, by the book, basic storytelling comics, that’s a part of the medium that I’ll never let go of in my heart. It has huge, obvious merits. But there are other approaches to comics storytelling besides the most dominant one that are of value, that move people and that serve a function in people’s lives. And there is so much of this kind of work. It only seems to be ‘not really comics’ because it’s always maligned or outright ignored by most comics institutions.
I think, on a fundamental level, this is bad business. Comics people tend to think that readers only accept a certain kind of comics, and most institutions define themselves as providing either the trash of that kind of comic, or the high end of that kind of comic. I think that’s underestimating readers and alienating a huge potential audience. So…with Domino, my task at the beginning was to group a lot of uncommon comics together, to make a statement, to treat this work with dignity. To readers and artists, the value of this work has always been clear, but they’ve been left with few options to either express themselves or to simply read. I think it took close to a decade for this statement to get digested beyond people that already got it, even in some small fashion. But ten years after founding Domino, I think it’s making some sense, albeit in a very minor way.
4CA : Do you view your role along the lines of that of an “acquisitions editor,” or do you view yourself as purely a distributor? In other words, if a comic that doesn’t meet certain aesthetic criteria — however arbitrary they may be — is sent your way, would you still be willing to distribute it? On a related note, and I’m certainly not asking you to single anything out by name here, but have you ever distributed a comic that you think has literary and/or artistic merit that you don’t personally like?
AE : Running the Domino store and the new wholesale operation are going to be very different. I’m not so invested in what I personally like. I don’t think that’s so interesting and I think people involved in any kind of curation have to get over that. With the store, I try to plug in anything that feels undeniable to me, in the sense that it’s something that is an honest expression. I may not connect with it, but as long as there isn’t a heavy dose of cynicism, it’s an undeniable component of current comics. It’s important to include work like that, because once you do, more people who you’re unaware of (or your own tastes aren’t ready for yet) will submit their work, slowly changing a store that could have been your own simplistic vision into something much larger and more interesting.
But with the wholesale venture, I’m limited at the outset in terms of storage space, because I’m amassing these books in bulk. So, I’m trying to make a distilled offering of all the different parts of the store as I start out, something that I think will work well for adventurous retailers. If everything works out and I can afford to maybe rent some space to house more comics at some point down the line, then the wholesale catalog can hopefully be as wide ranging as the store itself.
4CA : What do you see as the biggest challenges facing small press and/or self-publishing cartoonists in terms of getting their work in front of a larger audience?
AE : I really think it’s lack of readership. Even if an independent artist gets picked up by a great publisher, there just isn’t the audience to make a book worked on for years and years profitable enough so that the artist can sustain themselves from being a cartoonist alone. There are obvious exceptions, but probably enough to count on one hand. I don’t think publishers are lazy, I don’t think retailers are lazy, and I certainly don’t think the artists are. But there’s a disconnect between all three entities in connecting with the crucial other group: readers. I don’t think Diamond helps with this but I don’t think bookstore distributors are much better. The comic direct marker and the bookstore market are pretty hostile to personal work in general, let alone formally challenging personal work. Readers, in my experience with Domino, are actually hungry for this stuff. It’s just a question of getting it in front of them and giving them a chance. Without that connection to readers, even the most brilliant cartoonists are just going to keep printing ever diminishing runs of their work and the audience will contract once again.
If there is a way to expand readership, it needs to be explored. Domino has maybe expanded readership for certain artists by…20 people? That’s not going to change things much. But if there’s a way to bring bookstores in and have people encounter this work outside of the internet bubble that’s aware of these things already, that could be helpful. And if ten people besides myself, John P. and a few others work on these things, that’d be a good start.
4CA : With you broadening out into the wholesale market, will Domino continue to function as a publishing entity as well, or do time concerns necessitate your scaling back publishing operations a bit in order to make sure this new venture is successful?
AE : No, if anything, I want to publish more now. I think so much of comics (again, not counting the artists and readers) is contracting away from the kind of work Domino is most interested in. I think now’s the time to flood the market with as much challenging work as possible, since there’s anything but a glut of non-commercial comics right now.
4CA : On an unrelated note, your first book-length comic is a good few years is due out soon. What can you tell readers about MESKIN AND UMEZO without tipping your hand too much?
AE : The printer proofs just came in today and I’m excited to approve them tomorrow morning. I really can’t wait to send out copies to everyone who pre-ordered it. I worked on this for four years and I hate summarizing what it’s about, but : I drew it in such a way as to let two characters talk to each other and shift the narrative based on what they say page by page. After the first two years of working on it, I latched on to a strain of conversation that really meant something to me, and went back and redrew the first half of the book for another year and a half to re-congeal that thread of dialogue. I think, in the end, it becomes an exchange between these two characters that I couldn’t have written in any other way except as a comic with these specific drawings. I just want it to be in the mail and heading to peoples’ houses. Publishing it through Domino means a hell of a lot to me. If only I’d made the paper it’s printed on myself, all the way from pulp to printed page…then it’d really be something. But I’m not that crazy.
4CA : And finally, in an ideal word, where do you see Domino in five years’ time? What would you like to see continue and what would you like to see change, both in terms of your own publishing and distribution operations specifically, and in the broader independent or “alternative” comics market in general?
AE : I want Domino to remain a store where any kind of expression can have some connection to readers and I want the wholesale operation to work out so that there’s an option to get that kind of expression to people who aren’t already part of the choir, people who need to stumble upon that kind of thing by chance. Lots of people do need that. I think comics right now has so many artists and readers who have a lot to exchange with each other, a lot of contact to be made. I don’t think there’s anything in life that I value more than interacting with people through their art. But I’m not sure if comics as a whole right now serves that necessary function as well as it could. It feels like a crucial moment, where things could unfortunately get even more corporatized than they are already. There are so many good people working behind the scenes in comics who continue to perform one of the hardest tasks imaginable: getting work that has a real function and real worth into readers’ lives. If Domino can play any role in being an instrument for that to happen, then that’s what I want it to be doing in five years.
Thank you, Austin, for your time and thoughtful responses! Please find more from and about Austin and Domino at the following sites :
To address the elephant in the room right at the outset, yes — Josh Pettinger and Evan Salazar’s new eight-page mini, Wimp Digest, is a “gimmick” comic, the stunt in question being that Salazar is writing and drawing a mildly embarrassing anecdote about Pettinger’s childhood, and Pettinger is writing and drawing a mildly embarrassing anecdote about Salazar’s childhood. Got that?
I’m sure you do, as the idea of one cartoonist telling the other a story for them to commit to paper, and the other doing the same, isn’t a terribly difficult conceit to grasp — nor is this comic itself a difficult one to kick back and spend about 15 minutes with. It’s a fun, kinda heartwarming, and certainly well-illustrated little number by two of the more promising new (-ish, at any rate) talents in the “indie”/self-publishing scene (although, as I’m sure you won’t be surprised to discover, the publication of this is every bit the “joint venture” that its creation was). Here’s the thing, though — you’re also more than likely to see some actual value in it, and by that I mean value beyond its inherent cleverness.
Not that there’s anything wrong with being clever, mind you — in this cynical day and age, it gets kind of a bad rap, but when done right it still makes for an enjoyable reading experience, which this ‘zine certainly is. But I think Pettinger and Salazar are reaching for something a little more here — something maybe, dare I say it, at least nominally approaching understanding. And not just of each other.
Rather, what I see in the essential character of these admittedly quick little vignettes — the subjects of which you can pretty well glean from the titles of the strips as presented in the image above — is an effort to understand their own artistic processes, and where the line between subjectivity and objectivity (always murky at best, true) lies by applying their own creative practices to the task of playing biographer for someone else. And who better to try something like that on than a friend, right?
Please don’t take this to mean that we’re playing around in “where does the end of me become the start of you?” territory here or anything, though, as we’re most assuredly not. Rather, what these guys are doing is seeing what, if anything, of their own unique cartooning “voice” carries over into someone else’s story, and how that “voice” informs said story. And when you’re talking about two people whose approaches and concerns are pretty singular unto themselves, that’s likely to prove to be a very interesting exercise, indeed — and so it is.
I guess I’d be lying if I said this was anything like an essential purchase — -after all, if you want straight-no-chaser Salazar you’re better off picking up Rodeo, and if you want straight-no-chaser Pettinger you’re better off picking up Goiter (and I should state for the record that you’re doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you’re not already reading both) — but it’s definitely an intriguing and worthwhile one all the same. Plus, it’s cheap, and in times such as these that’s always a plus — but don’t take that to mean it’s inherently disposable or purely a vanity project. This might be a gimmick, sure, but it’s nevertheless a substantive one that allows each cartoonist to discover something about the other — and, more importantly, about themselves.
Review wrist check — I was wearing my Farer Universal “Stanhope” mechanical hand-winder when I wrote this one, the only non-automatic watch in my modest little collection. It’s riding a Hirsch “Paul” alligator-pattern leather strap from their “Performance” series for a dressy look but a comfortable, sporty feel.
A collaborative effort between writer Lane Yates and artist Garrett Young that was self-published toward the tail end of 2019, The Garden is a curious and fascinating mini that weaves an utterly unique spell that exemplifies the notion of, with apologies to Dan Clowes, an iron first under a velvet glove. But that fist is all the more powerful for restraining itself and never quite connecting.
Set in a bucolic and lavish landscape rife with strange growth, an aging couple referred to only as “Neighbor” and “Fellow” strike up an intimate relationship in the midst of “all this dreadful beauty,” largely because — apart from an omnipresent, multi-eyeballed observer — there doesn’t appear to be anybody else around. Details are scarce — aside from those found within Young’s intense, intricate illustrations — and that’s one of the comic’s most intriguing facets : who these people are, what they’re doing here, why this “Eyeball Kid” (apologies this time to Eddie Campbell) is apparently acting as a de facto “border guard” between this hermetically-sealed world and the one that may or may not exist outside it, why a “neighborhood” with the character and affect of many an entirely-foreclosed-upon suburban cul-de-sac should exist within these alien (in the most precise sense of the word) environs — these are left entirely up to the reader to determine for themselves, and seem purposely left wide open for allegorical interpretation.
The rigid formalism of the book’s page layouts add to the feeling of this reality being entirely separate and self-contained, and ditto for Yates’ largely-stiff and expository dialogue, which has a rhythm and cadence all its own that nevertheless complements the artwork beautifully. In the eyes of many a reader of “avant-garde,” “independent,” or “art” comics, it’s taken as a given that one head is always better than two, but this is very much a singular work of artistic expression — it’s just that it happens to have been made by a pair of people. Seamlessness off the page leads to seamlessness on it, then, it would appear.
All looks and reads well, then — but all certainly never feels well. The passage of time isn’t just a fact of life in this seemingly-Edenic vista, it hangs over all like an oppressive force — which, let’s face it, is precisely what time is, it’s just that we’re trained and conditioned to take it as a given. Not so here, however — and that fourth-dimensional pressure, while unseen, never goes unnoticed. And it only seems to run in one direction — Neighbor and Fellow change, age, and all that, but their surroundings? Not so much. In fact, not at all.
This lends the entire proceedings a sense of unease and dread that’s always at a remove; it hangs over things without crashing down on them. The pacing here is borderline-idyllic, to be sure, but it’s nevertheless fraught with an almost sublime tension, the end result being something close to what a leisurely-expanding fraught nerve might feel like — assuming there actually was such a thing.
That might be a metaphor that’s ultimately impossible to apply to anything, then — they tend to be more successful when referring to things that actually exist — but I feel pretty confident in its usage here, given that this is a comic that is utterly and absolutely unlike anything else itself. And while it may be short, don’t be surprised if you spend hours with it — and if it lingers in your mind even longer than that after you’ve put it aside.
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