Everything Old Is New Again : David Tea’s “Bronze Table Of The Blade Masters” (A.K.A. “Five Perennial Virtues” #6)

In 2007, to the notice of probably no one apart from a few of his local Minneapolis-area friends, “outsider” cartoonist David Tea released issue number six of his sporadically self-published Five Perennial Virtues digest-sized series. In 2017, for reasons known only to himself, he’s re-releasing it, plus a bunch of old sketches, under the title of Bronze Table Of The Blade Masters. This is something we should all be very happy about.

The reasons why we ought to be so are hard to quantify, of course, but then so is Tea’s work — eschewing basically every established rule of cartooning more, it seems, out of necessity than any sort of deliberate design, one could fairly argue that nothing happens in this comic, but then it really doesn’t need to in order for it to be interesting, simply because its aesthetic, its construction, its very reason for being is almost impenetrable; it is what it is and it harbors no pretenses toward being anything else. It’s a pure transmission of artistic intent on the part of the person who made it, and he made it because he could, full stop.

I’m not tremendously enamored of detailed plot synopses in my reviews, even for comics that are easily-discernible straight lines from A to B, but details are almost inconsequential when it comes to Tea: if you absolutely must know, the “story” here revolves around our protagonist/author meeting up with two “friends”— one of them being an Octopus, the other a cactus —  at a coffee shop, where he proceeds to regale them with a brief historical harangue about the Spartans, declare their table to be the “Bronze” one of the title, and then lead them into adventures we never see and probably don’t matter. So there’s your recap, but it’s not like much of what makes this book so genuinely intriguing stems from the story itself — all of that is to be found in how the story is presented.

Book-ended with new intro and outro pages “delivered” by the trademark FPV symbol, and interrupted at seemingly utterly random points with several pages of slap-dashed sketchbook work, there is an intuitive rhythm to these proceedings that makes no particular logical sense but nonetheless feels right, perhaps in spite of itself — in a world where rules don’t apply, newly-imposed ones will suffice in their place, but it’s not like Tea even bothers coming up with any; his “clip-art” style backgrounds, his entirely-expository dialogue, his curious repeated use of dice as a motif, it’s all just there. And yet, taken as a whole, you can’t envision this work as being anything other than what it is, reasons why be damned.

I can’t claim any special insight into Tea’s creative process, nor do I feel particularly compelled to divine one based on the evidence he may or may not provide in his finished product — I accept this comic, and all of his others, on their own terms, and stand in a kind of quiet awe at the way in which he frankly allows no other choice; the nature of his creativity is such that it arrives to audiences entirely unfiltered and unmediated, necessarily raw, and yet sophisticated in a way that mere technical prowess can never begin to approximate. You hear the word auteur a lot — here is its working definition writ large.

But please, whatever you do, I implore you not to take my word for it (how weird is it for a critic to say that?) — experience this comic for yourself, as unlike most of Tea’s work it’s available outside the Twin Cities (as is the book pictured above, his expanded reprint version of Five Perennial Virtues #2), and should really be filtered through your own individual lens and processed and interpreted by means of your unique sensibilities. You may love this stuff as I do, you may hate it, but either way it’s safe to say you’ve never seen anything else like it.


Bronze Table Of The Blade Masters sells for $6 from — where else? — Domino Books. Order it directly at http://dominobooks.org/fivevirtues6.html

And while we’re tossing out links, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, it’s been a lot of politics. Your support there not only enables me to keep it going, it also ensures a steady stream of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. Please take a moment to check it out and consider joining up by pointing your trusty browser to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse



Weekly Reading Round-Up : 08/12/2018 – 08/18/2018, More From David Tea

This week’s Round-Up is going up early because this weekend, which is when I usually writing these things, is all about Autoptic 2018, the latest iteration of the Twin Cities’ premier bi-annual small press comics/indie publications show, and so I’m going to be too damn busy buying and reading a whole bunch of new comics to have any time to write about them. Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to talk about already this week thanks to Minneapolis’ own David Tea, who was very appreciative of my review of his Five Perennial Virtues #2 — so appreciative, in fact, that he hooked me up with some more of his comics, and I supplemented his generous “donation to the cause” by reading a couple others that he has available via Amazon. Let’s have a look :

Magic Horses is a bumper-sized reprint volume of issues five and seven of Five Perennial Virtues, and while the hows, whys, and wherefores of Tea’s re-packaging “strategy” are as utterly indecipherable and impenetrable as much of his work , that’s quite alright with me — in fact, I hope that both he and you realize that I mean that as a compliment. The contents of issue five revolve around Dave’s fictitious gig as a “professional gardener,” his struggles to repair a trellis (complete with a history of, and rumination upon the subject of, trellises in general), his battles with his own lethargy/laziness (he becomes very weak out of nowhere working on a trellis and is magically healed by an inter-dimensional “cosmic portal” of some sort), and his walks around town to buy coffee. Weird interruptions in the story for blocks of hand-written text, “clip art”-style patterns, double-page spreads of immaculately manicured lawns and, you guessed it, illustrations of trellises give the proceedings an otherworldly vibe that you’re either going to appreciate or not (I do, but I also realize that Tea’s are the very definition of “your mileage may vary” comics), and those same “ground rules” also apply to issue seven, which sees Dave pondering the “red eye” on the planet Jupiter and the shape of clouds before hitching a ride on a magical winged horse to a Japanese-style cloud palace, only to find an 1898-issued penny on his possibly-imaginary journey before returning to Earth. The art style varies from sketchy to intricate, with some bizarre photos of the cartoonist himself (one with his head super-imposed on the body of an ant) thrown in for good measure. Weird, inexplicable, deeply personal stuff that seems to be produced for the author’s own personal edification and little else. In other words, pretty much a perfect comic.

Old Stones, Old Shrubs is another thick reprint collection, this one showcasing Five Perennial Virtues numbers four and three (yes, in that order), and four may just be the most utterly bizarre Tea story of ’em all, as his reverie on stepping stones segues into one about skipping stones segues into an encounter with a friend who has a (non-sexual) fantasy encounter with a couple of teenage girls segues into a Zen Buddhist monk who takes Dave and his buddy on a cosmic journey that apparently was too tough to draw, because the last five or six pages are hand-scrawled text. The usual jarring, interrupted pacing, double-page lawn spreads, etc. are all present and accounted for — as is also the case with issue three, but this time the visual sidebars make a bit more sense given that the “plot” revolves, once again, around Dave’s job as a gardener, and he spends most of his time trimming and shaping shrubs located on the grounds of an expensive apartment complex. In addition to shrubs, the author also has “deep thoughts” on cowboy hats, “hole cards,” the weather, the so-called “butterfly effect,” those “helicopters” that fall off maple trees, and even Paul Gulacy. Dave has always liked Gulacy’s art, and guess what? So have I. Some of the pages in this installment are the most detailed and quasi-“professional” I’ve seen Tea do, others look like they were composed by means of some cheap “dot-matrix” computer program, and a couple even feature nothing more than stick figures. Fucking brilliant stuff that “flows” only with respect to itself. Which is, of course, a logical impossibility — but it’s true nevertheless.

Nature Trail dates all the way back to 2001 and features Tea’s most overt attempt at a traditional narrative, focusing on a walk along a — you guessed it — nature trail undertaken by protagonists Luther (an obvious stand-in for the cartoonist) and Olive, who are something more than friends, less than lovers, you know the drill. Rather than going the obvious route of riding the potentially-raw nerve of their ill-defined relationship and exploring the inner lives of either character in any detail, though, Dave has both of them spend most of their time engaged in the sort of out-of-left-field historical and philosophical ruminations that would go on to become a defining trait of his later work. The glaciers, the “Gaia Theory,” environmentalism, the Ice Ages — I guess they’d rather talk about all this than how they feel about each other, and you know what? That’s cool with me. A not-quite-love story for the socially awkward illustrated in a style best described as “sketchy” and “ill-defined” even by Tea standards, this is thoroughly engaging stuff almost entirely in spite of itself.

Coffee Shop Table Of The Stars is a 2017-issued sequel to Nature Trail that sees Luther and Olive reunited by sheer chance for the first time in many years, and fall right back into their old conversational habit, only this time out politics is the major topic of discourse, with Dave — sorry, Luther — coming off as being a lot more conservative that I would have guessed. Not to worry, though, shit gets reasonably theoretical after awhile, and once again, both characters reveal more about themselves when they talk about anything but themselves. Tea returns to his “neo-primitive” roots with the art for this one, and hews closer to the rules of standard narrative, as well. Not as “trippy” as any of his Five Perennial Virtues material (and, by the way, I still don’t know what the virtues are — and at this point, I think it would kill the mystery somewhat if I were to find out), but more accessible by a wide margin. I enjoyed it quite a bit in its proper context as companion piece to an earlier work, but I’m not sure how well it’d function as a “stand-alone” work. It’s nice to see Tea display a stronger grasp on subtleties — of dialogue, atmosphere, setting, etc. — than I would have probably guessed, though, and that alone makes this one worth your investment of time and money.

And so concludes another Round-Up column. Next time, as you’ve doubtless already surmised, I expect to have some books picked up at Autoptic to opine on, but until then, if you want to find some or all of these David Tea comics, they’re not nearly as difficult to get ahold of as you might think, at least not if you have a Kindle. Dave doesn’t have an Amazon “author page,” but if you follow this link you’ll find all of these books, plus one or two others :https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=dp_byline_sr_ebooks_1?ie=UTF8&text=David+Tea&search-alias=digital-text&field-author=David+Tea&sort=relevancerank