There are few cartoonists working today funnier than Drew Lerman, and while it would be a reach to say that his Snake Creek strip owes more to Henny Yougman than it does to Walt Kelly, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes-level detective skills to see a subtle-but-rich vein of Yiddish humor running under much of it. So why not acknowledge one’s influences, eh boychik?
And that’s what Lerman’s newest self-published mini, Schtick, is all about — a short form “deep dive” into the rapid-fire exchanges and caustic banter that inform so much of traditional Jewish comedy. It’s a lean and lovingly mean number, clocking in at 12 full-color pages, and that’s just about right to provide a nicely representative sample size of “double act” gag strips largely focused on the kind of aggravating-yet-hilarious misunderstandings that arise when two people can’t seem to help but to talk over (and around) each other from start to finish. Is it any wonder, then, that they find themselves in much the same place at the end as they were at the beginning?
What’s surprising above all here, though, isn’t the comic’s visuals so much as its admirably loving (a term I honestly feel no one should invoke lightly) approach to its mission — Lerman’s got a natural and entirely unforced affinity for his subject matter that, unlike my own half-assed attempts at appropriation, simply cannot be faked and, consequently, demands to be respected. It’s not that you won’t see the gags coming, anything but — it’s that you know from the outset precisely what he’s got up his sleeve with these strips, and yet can’t help but laugh along with them anyway simply because he executes them all so damned well.
Look, I’m not going to fool you — it’ll only take you all of about ten minutes to read this comic. But they’ll be ten of the most enjoyable minutes in your calendar year. Pass on it and you mebbe oughta get your head examined.
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
Moving right along with our next-to-last “best of” list, we come to the Top 10 Contemporary Collections of 2020. Simply put, this category is devoted to collected editions of work originally published, either physically or digitally, since the year 2000, including Manga, webcomics, and Eurocomics. In practice, though, I’ll be honest and admit it’s all fairly recent stuff. Read on and you’ll see what I mean —
10. Inappropriate By Gabrielle Bell (Uncivilized) – How the hell spoiled are we these days, anyway? The modern master of disarmingly frank autobio released one of her strongest collections to date and it seemed as though it hardly got a mention in critical circles. Like the Hernandez brothers, Bell’s work is so consistently good that I fear we as readers take it for granted. We shouldn’t — this is a book to be downright thankful for.
9. Snake Creek By Drew Lerman (Self-Published) – Lerman’s first collection of his charming, idiosyncratic strip firmly establishes him as the closest thing we have to a successor to the likes of Charles Schulz and George Herriman. Rest assured I invoke neither name lightly, and that this book backs up the comparison.
8. Goblin Girl By Moa Romanova, Translated By Melissa Bowers (Fantagraphics) – It was a breakout year for Sweden’s Romanova, who cemented her status as a “talent to watch” with the first English-language publication of this unique memoir focused on mental health, self-image and, of course, relationships. If she continues to build on the strength of this astounding book, then the future of this art from we love is in very good hands, indeed.
7. Ghostwriter By Rayco Pulido, Translated By Andrea Rosenberg (Fantagraphics) – A classic Eurocomics mystery thriller set in 1943 Barcelona and featuring a frisson of both political tension and identity confusion, the English-language debut of Spain’s Pulido is a bona fide clinic on how to keep readers off-balance. You’ll be guessing right up to the very end — and left guessing even more afterwards as to how this book didn’t get about ten times more attention and recognition than it did.
6. The Winter Of The Cartoonist By Paco Roca, Translated By Erica Mena (Fantagraphics) – Damn if Fanta doesn’t keep putting out one more Roca masterwork after another, year after year, and this gripping drama about five cartoonists striking out on their own against the big publishing houses in 1957 fascist Spain is more than just a page-turner, it’s possibly the best creators’ rights treatise authored by anyone to date. Another essential read from one of the great auteurs of the medium.
5. J&K By John Pham (Fantagraphics) – A comprehensive collection of the misadventures of Pham’s lovable losers was long overdue, but it was also worth the wait, as this hardback compendium comes complete with more “extras” than you can shake a stick at, including posters, stickers, and a vinyl record! Nobody understands the relationship between printing, packaging, production, and content better than Pham, and this is the most seamlessly-integrated realization of his vision to date.
4. Grip By Lale Westvind (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – Westvind’s phantasmagoric, whirlwind paen to the strength and resolve of women working in the trades was a revelation in two parts, but reads even more seamlessly collected as a complete epic. It’s also arguably the best use of Riso printing to date in comics. A book of the ages and, even more importantly, for the ages.
3. The Contradictions By Sophie Yanow (Drawn+Quarterly) – Already celebrated as one of the best comics memoirs in recent memory, Yanow’s Eisner Award-winning webcomic gains added depth and emotion in this collected print volume. In fact, it looks and feels like something you’d bring with you on the very sort of European road trip that it documents with such frank and emotive sincerity.
2. Nineteen By Ancco, Translated By Janet Hong (Drawn+Quarterly) – A unique and heady mix of autobio and fiction, Korean cartoonist Ancco’s second book to be translated into English is a showcase for both her artistic versatility and her singular ability to transmute the angst and trauma of youth into truly unforgettable comics stories. If this one doesn’t rip your heart out at least a dozen times over, then you probably don’t have one.
1. Vision By Julia Gfrorer (Fantagraphics) – Originally self-published as a series of minis, Gfroer’s latest work, read in collected form, offers the most succinct and assured crystallization of her singular combination of concerns to date, blending historical “period-piece” storytelling with body horror with feminist theory with supernatural mystery with richly understated social commentary to remind us that what we fear most and what we desire most are often one and the same thing. Intimacy is a double-edged sword throughout Gfrorer’s remarkable body of work, and never more true than it is here, in what is surely the defining statement of her artistic career — so far.
Only one list to go — tomorrow we do the Top 10 Original Graphic Novels of 2020, and then it’s full steam ahead into the new year!
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 gratified indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look and, should you feel so inclined, join up.
The old saying goes that “you’re either on something, or you’re onto something” — and it seems as if Minneapolis cartoonist Peter Faecke might just be onto something with these “flip-book” split releases that he’s been doing, so after sharing the workload and cover space with A. T. Pratt for last year’s Wacky Western Double Digest, he’s back with a new dual release with one of my absolute favorite emerging cartoonists, Drew Lerman, this one focused on a detective story theme and bearing the admittedly unimaginative, but nevertheless apropos, title of Detective! Double Digest. So, yeah, it’s exactly what you think it is.
Especially if you think it’s going to be good, because this top-notch mini in certainly that. The two-color riso printing scheme employed by publishing imprint Really Easy Press is spot-on, the black/gray and pink gradations bringing the whimsical tone of both the stories and the art right to the surface, while the cardstock covers and high-quality paper are nice touches that give good value for money — but it’s the cartooning on display in these 24 pages that matters most, and if you know either of these artists, you know they’re not likely to disappoint.
And, of course, they don’t — Faecke’s prior work ably demonstrated his skill at what I would call in a pinch “reverential pastiche,” playing up the absurdities of genres ranging from the western to the superhero to the paramilitary vigilante yarn to the sex comic while showing a level of respect for them that’s far from the ironic and begrudging tone that too many lazily fall back on too often, and that pattern holds here in this tale of world-weary gumshoe Ira Hurt taking on a missing persons case that absurdly but entirely expertly morphs into the “Love Triangle” of the strip’s title. There’s little by way of thematic depth to be found, it’s true, but what of it? Faecke’s intentions are clear on their face and the more classical cartooning style that he adopts for this project isn’t just pitch-perfect, it also showcases his skills as a pure illustrator to a greater degree than any of his previous ‘zines barring, perhaps, his “Bronze Age” comics send-up Hand Of Misery. His humor here is also well-timed, and he gets the balance just right in terms of using it to accentuate, rather than overwhelm, his narrative. Yes, the whole thing has its tongue firmly in its cheek, but that doesn’t mean he’s shitting on old-school detective fiction — rather, he’s just reverent enough to show he understands the genre’s ins and outs, but just irreverent enough to adopt a slightly askew take on it. This is a comic by someone who obviously digs comics — not just making them, but reading them — and something like that is always a joy to spend some time with.
Flipping things over to Lerman’s “B” side (or maybe it’s the “A” side, take your pick — not that it particularly matters either way), we find him spinning a tale centered around Dav and Roy, the hapless protagonists of his superb Snake Creek strip, who here adopt the trappings of, and set up shop as, a pair of amateur sleuths and quickly find themselves hired by a “femme fatale” of sorts whose daddy is a billionaire. And a nutcase. Funny how the two usually go hand in hand. But there’s even more going on with him than first appearances would indicate, which means you get a lot of story crammed into these 12 pages, even if it’s delivered at Lerman’s trademark laconically dense (I promise, that only sounds crazy) pace.
Honestly, both of these strips are so damn enjoyable — and so damn well-drawn — that picking a favorite is a pointless exercise, and so I shan’t. What I will say is that both do exactly what they set out to do, and you’ll find plenty of value in contrasting the work of both cartoonists for their similarities and their differences — and that study in contrasts will leave you with a greater appreciation for how each approaches and executes their craft.
To put it as mildly as possible, then, it’s safe to say you really want to get your hands on this comic. You’ll read stuff this year that’s better, and plenty that’s worse, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything that’s more sheer fun.
Review wrist check – dressing things up today with my Zodiac “Olympos” gold dial model riding a Hirsch “Genuine Croco” strap in green. This watch looks plenty sharp on its black factory-provided strap, but hey — I think the green really kicks it up a notch. I don’t see myself needing to put on a suit anytime soon (at least I hope not), but if I had to, this is the combo I’d wear with it.
What I think : Dav and Roy, the two protagonists in cartoonist Drew Lerman’s Snake Creek, might be a stand-in for the author himself and a walking potato, respectively. What I know : Lerman wrote and drew one of these strips per day throughout 2018 and 2019, and now they’re all collected in a single — and singularly impressive — paperback that he’s having printed, and offering for sale, via Lulu. I also know that you should buy it. And now I’m going to tell you why.
In a very real sense, these strips follow a direct through-line that you can trace all the way back to George Herriman, but they’re also undoubtedly — as well as unclassifiably (not a real word, I know) — contemporary, despite largely dealing with timeless physical and metaphysical themes. There’s a simple and understated elegance to Lerman’s cartooning that is, above all, smart — and is reflected in his charming wit and masterful sense of comic timing. He’s clearly done his homework, then, but this is in no way an academic exercise, since the most important lesson he’s taken to heart is that the best “gag”-style cartoons have a hell of a lot of heart themselves. As do these.
Avoiding over-thinking things is a tricky wicket when one is working within the strictures of a set format and formula, but Lerman’s four-panel grids feel expansive and rife with possibility — part of that’s down to his expert illustration, sure, which abides by its own kind of internal logic and privileges physicality and motion above all else, but a bigger part of it is down to his eye and ear for commonality and universality, his sheer facility at imbuing the outrageous with elements we can all relate to and draw a pleasing grin from. I mentioned Herriman before, but Charles Schulz, Frank King, and Walt Kelly were all masters of this, as well — and trust me when I say it only sounds absurd to mention Lerman’s name in the same breath as these greats. Within just a handful of this book’s 152 pages, he earns that distinction absolutely.
Which isn’t to say that there’s not room for improvement — there is. Lerman’s imagination is so fluid and amorphous that he sometimes seems to lose interest in plot threads that he was “all in” on just days prior (a fascinating nameless dog turns up for a time, only to make an abrupt exit), but I can forgive that because along the way he lands on inventive uses for pretty much all of his ideas, even those that are ultimately discarded, and watching a cartoonist “feel their way” through their own material is usually a fairly fascinating process in and of itself. Besides, the line between “anything can happen” and “hey, shit happens” is such a fine one that demarcating it is often an exercise in futility — and don’t we all appreciate it when comics have an element of the genuinely anarchic to them?
I know I do, at any rate — and if you do, as well, then I defy you to be anything but utterly captivated and frequently even transfixed by this work. I sincerely hope that the newspaper syndicates are paying attention to Lerman, because this is visionary, iconoclastic stuff that is nevertheless absolutely and immediately accessible to readers of all stripes, and from all walks of life.
In these fractured and harrowing times, gentle but assured musings and observations on everyday absurdities are both hard to come by, and exactly the sort of tonic we can all benefit from on occasion. Drew Lerman has a unique perspective that’s as invaluable as it is funny and intelligent, and with this book he makes a strong case that he might very well be our next great cartoonist.
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 do please take a moment to check it out by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse