A Whole New World : Pia-Melissa Laroche’s “Musical Pretext For Gestural Adventure” (Entropy Editions 05)

It’s not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to know where, or perhaps even how, to begin discussing French cartoonist Pia-Melissa Laroche’s Musical Pretext For Gestural Adventure — the fifth release in editor/publisher Justin Skarhus’ formally-inventive Entropy Editions series (or, as the back cover would have it, Entropy Editions 05), but it strikes me that’s rather the point : Laroche isn’t interested in showing us a world that can be described so much as one that can be sensed and felt.

It’s a tall order, after all, to craft a silent story that revolves around the transformative power of music, and to populate said wordless (and, crucially, tuneless) narrative with anthropomorphic forms that, in a pinch, most closely resemble trees, but for all that the through-line here is fairly easily discernible : events progress toward a conclusion that, depending on one’s reading and/or mood, is either every bit as whimsical as most of that which has preceded it, or decidedly less so, and therefore the comic retains its essential interpretive quality from first page to last. Trust me, however, when I say that it only sounds pretentious.

Okay, fair enough, I’m the one who’s sounding pretentious here. Don’t, however, let that — or the analytical nature of the comic itself — put you off from exploring it in depth. In point of fact, Laroche has crafted something as eminently accessible as it is abstract and innovative here, and as such it both stands on its own quite nicely and fits comfortably within the overall ethos of Skarhus’ line. It resists easy categorization beyond that, though, and again it’s safe to infer that’s by design : this is a comic that’s easy enough to both appreciate and enjoy, considerably more difficult to pigeonhole.

Which, I flatter myself, makes it precisely the sort of thing this blog exists to analyze and discuss. Laroche certainly has an aesthetic sensibility all her own, one arguably more rooted in pure design than it is in illustration per se, and it’s highly effective insofar as the specific task it’s called upon to discharge here goes. At the margins, perhaps, it reminds me just a bit of Brian Blomerth, but that’s more to give you a point of reference than it is a point of comparison : after all, where Blomerth’s panels are packed to the gills with visual information, Laroche makes intuitive and highly inventive use of negative space, essentially conveying spatial “overflow” via imagery that is, at first glance, deceptively open and expansive. What we’re seeing becomes far more recognizable as the story moves along, it’s true, but that’s every bit as much due to the fact that most will find they quickly adapt to Laroche’s methodology as it is to the increasingly relatable nature of events themselves. In other words, you really can’t help but go with her flow.

And, truthfully, why would you want to do anything else, anyway? This is deliciously, deliriously inviting cartooning — a siren call that takes you places you haven’t been before showing you things you recognize in a way that you’ve never seen before. Laroche goes “all in” on bringing readers in, and the end result is akin to be swallowed whole within a vortex of pure visual and conceptual delight — complete with the occasional frisson of the disturbing that immersing oneself in something new usually entails. A stereotypical “hero’s journey” this most assuredly is not, but there’s something quietly heroic all the same in its utterly unique realization.

And now I’m afraid that I’ve bypassed pretentious and gone straight to pompous, so I’d best stop while I’m ahead — or at least before I fall any further behind. You’ve got better things to do with your time than reading my blathering, anyway — like, for instance, reading this unassumingly magnificent little comic.

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Musical Pretext For Gestural Adventure is available for $8.00 from the Entropy Editions Bigcartel site at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/musical-pretext-for-gestural-adventure

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, film, 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

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “65 Bugs” By Dean Sudarsky

Concluding our look at titles currently available from publisher Justin Skarhus’ Entropy Editions we come to catalogue number EE04, 65 Bugs, a formally conservative but conceptually innovative work from Providence’s Dean Sudarsky, who takes the format of the short-form newspaper strip and turns it on its ear by pairing visual simplicity with dense existential complexity to fashion an eight-page mini that exerts a strange hold on readers — or at least it did on this reader — long after the covers are closed. Sex, death, ennui, and the endless search to break free from life’s routines are all touched upon here — among other weighty concerns — but at the end of the day we’re still talking about a mini that is, perhaps against all odds, inherently fun, and if all of that sounds more than a bit contradictory on its face to you, well, that’s as I’m surmising Sudarsky wishes it to be.

Like the other comics in the EE range, then, it’s more than fair to label this as a “challenging” read, but the kicker is that it doesn’t particularly feel like one on first pass-through — sure, there’s a sense of “what exactly am I reading here?” that comfortably segues into “what did I just read here?” when all is said and done, but regardless of how one chooses to answer those questions, I think it’s a relatively safe bet that most readers, perplexed or not, won’t hesitate to call the book enjoyable, even if they’re not exactly certain just what it is that they enjoyed.

Vaguely anthropomorphized insects going about their business, forever contending with the natural elements as well as their own innate abilities (or lack thereof) are as viable a tool as any for exploring quandaries both philosophical and physical, but only because Sudarsky thought of it, which means that we’re firmly in auteur territory with this one, even if the whys and wherefores behind the cartoonist’s creative choices remain forever and just slightly out of reach. I know I’ve racked my brain with questions in regard to both what Sudarsky is saying as well as how he’s trying to say it, but when something feels right and sincere and genuine — as this comic surely does — then there truly does come a point where overthinking things defeats the purpose, and you start to question your own need to figure everything out. Sometimes, after all, artists make the decisions they make on instinct and impulse alone, and while this is a tightly-structured work down to its very core, that doesn’t preclude it from being the product of muse-following, now does it?

What’s not up for debate is Sudarsky’s deep knowledge of the traditions he’s drawing from — as well as drawing upon — in this work. This is smart, solid, informed, and self-aware cartooning that plays to its own strengths while pushing the thematic envelope gently and with a great deal of assurance. It’s a unique comic, absolutely, yet one that is as instantly familiar as it is perplexing. Sudarsky could do dozens, perhaps even hundreds, more pages of strips like these — and my sincere hope is that one day he will — and each would feel its own particular blend of tried-and-true and utterly alien because that dichotomy is baked into the premise on the one hand, and into the artist’s execution of it on the other. That, friends, is as purely skilled as things get in this medium we love so much.

In fairness, however, I can see where those who like a project’s raison d’etre to be stated for them plainly might find this to be something of an extended “WTF moment” — or perhaps even a series of them. But even such an aesthetically conservative reader will never feel completely outside of their “comfort zone” here, only confronted with the fact that perhaps it’s not so comfortable as they’d always assumed. I’m of a mind that such exercises in upending conformity and preconception are almost always of value, but who are we kidding? That’s not a view shared by all. Simply put, then, if this comic sounds like it might not be your cup of tea, then yeah — it probably won’t be.
For the rest of us, though, this is a reading experience rooted in what we know, yet completely different, and at times even in direct opposition, to it. Revealing hidden depths with each successive re-reading, these rank among the eight most provocative and densely-layered pages you’ll read this year — even if they look like anything but.

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65 Bugs is available from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/65-bugs

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression” in the “Blackout Edition” variant.

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “The Beast” By Danielle Chenette

Continuing with out perusal of publisher Justin Skarhus’ Entropy Editions offerings, we come to catalogue number EE03, Los Angeles-based cartoonist Danielle Chenette’s The Beast, a deceptively “naive” comic that actually wryly and rather expertly deconstructs everything from the role of myth in society to “gun culture” to sibling dynamics to gaming to toxic masculinity — and somehow manages to do it all with a smile on its face and nary a hint of self-important lecturing. In fact, this unassuming little coming-of-age fable is actually, dare I say it, quite a bit of fun.

“Don’t go in the woods” is a common enough trope in popular culture — it’s even served as the title of at least two films that I’m aware of — but here Chenette cleverly and ingeniously transposes it into the internet age, where stories of things that go bump in the night have been amplified to an absurd degree rather than finally put to rest by the forces of rationality, putting the lie to the quaint hope that we all probably held in the early days of the so-called “information” superhighway. But I suppose I digress.

Or do I? Because the idea of superstition or irrationality manipulated to the benefit of some is also one of the themes Chenette tackles here, albeit in more personalized form than large-scale phenomena such as QAnon. Still, it’s part and parcel of everything to unpack in this 32-pager, and while the downright whimsical art style, naturalist dialogue, and freeform, near-intuitive page layouts employed in the telling of this tale might cause one to discount its thematic heft and weight, in reality we’ve got more than a bit of a velvet glove/iron fist dichotomy at work here — albeit one that lands its punches in, for lack of a better term immediately coming to mind, a decidedly pleasing fashion.

Fear not, though, dear reader, for while your humble critic here may sounds both confused and confusing, Chenette’s comic is anything but, and in most key respects stands out as the most traditional of Entropy Editions’ releases to date. Sure, at its core one could argue that it’s an inherently experimental work in that it densely packs a number of fairly serious subjects and themes into a crisp, even breezy, narrative structure, but I think such a reading could also result from yours truly having been at the review game for so long that I veer into the overly-analytical almost by default. It may, in fact, simply be that Chenette is really good at what she does and is therefore able to grapple with topics of extreme import without belaboring any particular points. You’ll know you’re being offered plenty to think about here, make no mistake, but you won’t feel like you’re being forced to think about any of it.

Call it sleight of hand if you must, skill if you’re feeling more generous, but either way this comic hits it out of the park in terms of doing exactly what it sets out to do — and its goals and aims are actually quite ambitious, both formally and conceptually. This is just about as self-assured as the art form of cartooning gets, if you’ll permit me to speak plainly (and hey, it’s my blog, so good luck stopping me), and in a world where the term “highest possible recommendation” gets thrown about far too freely, this is work absolutely worthy of such an accolade.
Are you still here? Forget about my blathering, go order this comic!

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The Beast is available for $7.00 from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/the-beast

Review wrist check – Formex “Reef” green dial/green bezel model riding its factory-issue stainless steel bracelet, which is a damn work of art in and of itself. Formex’s bracelets are some of the best in the business, outdoing the likes of Tag Heuer, Longines, and most of the bigger players in their price range with ease. In fact, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, this could very well be the single-best timepiece in my admittedly modest collection.

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “Prison” By Liva Kandevica

There are many different types of prisons — those constructed from without and those constructed from within, those that we can escape and those we can’t, those undoubtedly real and those at the very least possibly imagined. One of history’s more infamous convicts, Charles Manson, once said “prison’s in your mind — can’t you see I’m free?,” but the unnamed protagonist of Leipzig, Germany-based cartoonist Liva Kandevica’s Prison, catalogue number EE02 in publisher Justin Skarhus’ Entropy Editions range, apparently didn’t get Charlie’s memo : metaphorically imprisoned by dint of sheer isolation, they suffer, as they live, entirely alone, and largely in silence.

Err — except for the talking (and endlessly taunting) stones, that is.

For the heavily-routinized among us, this critic included, Kandevica’s 24-page mini will no doubt hit home, given that her prisoner is their own jailer, and the bars and walls of their metaphorical cell appear to be constructed entirely of their personal habits, but as most anyone who’s ever found it impossible to break free of their circumstances can tell you, there is a comfort in hewing to one’s norms that is downright insidious — we’ll keep on doing the same shit over and over again even, perhaps especially, when we know said shit is no good for us. “Old habits are hard to break,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” — these cliches didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

Here’s the thing, though — despite how things sound to this point, this comic isn’t all doom and gloom. There are mysteries lurking within it (what those annoying stones symbolize is entirely up to your own independent analysis), sure, but there’s also a deeply existential streak of absurdist humor that runs throughout (and just underneath) the narrative here, one that is as much felt as it is seen, and the “dual track” first-person narration Kandevica employs (see artwork examples) effectively approximates what amounts to a “split-screen” effect between words and pictures, meaning this is a comic where both elements work together in concert and separately. It’s weird, but it’s both effective and affecting — and that’s really not the worst summation of the book itself, either, now that I come to think of it.

What makes it work isn’t, thankfully, all that difficult to quantify — Kandevica’s unique blend of minimalist figure drawing, classically “catroony” environments, and judiciously-placed washes is damn pleasing to the eye, and about as apropos to her subject matter as one can think of or perhaps even hope for. Striking a delicate balance between visual elements is a flat-out necessity when you’re taking readers on a journey this singular, and while there’s no miraculous “jailbreak” to speak of on offer, this is at the very least an aesthetically pleasing prion to be trapped within.

For all that, though, you can’t help but have some sympathy for the poor sap at the center of this tale of self-induced woe. We’ve all been stuck in some ruts in our lives, and to one degree or another most of us have some going right now (got a job? Then I’m referring to you). Escape might not be easy, and in some cases might not even be preferable, but Kandevica reminds us that it’s an option, whether we can see it or not. She’s constructed a story about a solitary and isolated individual that somehow, go figure, speaks to the concerns, even fears, of just about everyone. Whatever she’s serving time for, I say let her off for good behavior.

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Prison is available for $7.00 from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/prison

Review wrist check – Seaborne Trading Co. “Sea Venture” in their “Sunset Bezel” variation riding Seaborne’s own “Bondi Blue” NATO strap. If there’s such a thing as a perfect watch for the 97-degree weather we “enjoyed” here in the Twin Cities today, then this is it.

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “Barrage” By Nicolas Nade

Entropy Editions is a new(-ish) publisher based here in the Twin Cities that appears to be casting a rather broad remit in terms of the sort of material they’re willing to roll the dice on — so far all their well-designed minis seem to fall vaguely under the rubric of what most would classify as “art comics,” specifically “art comics” with a formalist approach, but beyond that everything is up for grabs conceptually and thematically, and it’s not like these de facto categorizations preclude narrative from being involved in the proceedings to the extent a given cartoonist wishes for it to be. Sure, the format of the books themselves is rather uniform in terms of logo, cover design, and what have you — they’re even numbered! — but in strictly editorial terms these comics hew (a bit) closer to, say, a Mini Kus! than they do to a Ley Lines, which has an admittedly flexible, but still very much always-present-and-accounted-for, set of “guideposts” at its core. All of which means, I suppose, that we can look forward to never quite knowing what’s in store for us with one of these ‘zines, as the very name of the project implies.

I’d like to say we’re starting at the beginning with this overview of EE’s wares, but that wouldn’t be true : the line debuted in 2018 with Justin Skarhus’ Hand In Glove, but that sold out its limited run of 10 (yes, you read that correctly) copies quickly, and was unnumbered, so we’re going to start in 2020 with catalogue number EE01, French cartoonist Nicolas Nade’s abstract, wordless, and conceptually challenging Barrage, and in the days ahead review EE02, EE03, and EE04, as well. Sound good? Then let’s dive right in :

And honestly, there’s a lot to dive into with this 16-pager, an exploration of deliberately lifeless, austere, mechanized landscapes that can’t really be said to “go” anywhere — which is well and good since there’s no indication of where any of these sharply-delineated constructs “comes from,” either. Under normal circumstances logic would dictate that human hands built all of this — or built the machines that, in turn, built it? — at some point, but there’s a subtle and omnipresent timelessness to all of this that would indicate we’re looking at a quasi-permanent state of affairs in these drawings, a triumph of artifice that is unencumbered by either alpha or omega, the only concession to the organic being the brief appearance of something that could be slime, but could just as easily be engine grease.

Still, for all that, the round object we’re following does embark on a journey of sorts here, but the notion of it “progressing” is almost laughably quaint — it simply ends up somewhere other than where it started, and all indications are that it will continue on to somewhere else, in some form, after that. In a pinch it’s tempting to say that we’re observing a kind of mechanical reproductive cycle here, given some of the obvious visual parallels, but it’s also fair to say that a lot of it looks like a pinball-style game, too — which, come to think of it, Freud probably would’ve had field day with as well, so I dunno. I’ll leave all such speculation to more qualified minds than my own, I guess.

Still, I say without a moment’s hesitation that what matters more than anything when grappling with a project this obtuse by design in whether or not it gets you thinking, and on that score Nade clearly hits the mark. Steadfastly refusing to either celebrate or condemn the complete sublimation/subsumation of the biological in favor of an approach that, for lack of a better term, smacks of “straight reportage” may be frustrating — even alienating — to some readers, but chances are that even a quick glance at this comic would send that crowd scurrying more or less immediately anyway. This is art that is uncompromising on its face, and yet decidedly non-dictatorial in terms of both its methodology and messaging.
I’ll be blunt and state for the record that, while impressed with the delicacy and precision of this comic’s technical prowess, I’m still not sure how I “feel” about it — but I also think that a mixed or muted reaction is what Nade is seeking to engender in readers here. In a lifeless world, the only absolute is the absolute, and the human mind has forever been trying to come to grips with what exactly that is — as well as what it means.

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Barrage is available for $5.00 from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/barrage

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