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/

 

“Now” We’re Talking

As any long-time reader of purportedly “alternative” and/or “indie” comics can tell you, one of the defining traits of the medium in every decade is a kind of “state of the art form” manifesto that’s not so much written as it is mapped out by the varying-to-disparate editorial sensibilities of, and even a kind of de facto creative tension that arises between, two contrasting and contemporary anthologies. As that same long-time reader (in this case, me) can tell you, though, the one-time gulf that separated said pair of anthos (whatever they may be) has been narrowing over time — first to a gap, then to a short hop, and now, perhaps, to something that looks very much like a convergence.

In the 1980s, for instance, despite the occasional cartoonist who could safely appear in both, the “high art” ethos (or, if you’re so inclined, pretensions) of Raw were pretty far removed from the punk-infused, DIY, “low-brow” populism of Weirdo, which not only wasn’t afraid to play around in the gutter, but seemed downright at home there — but as their respective spots were assumed by Drawn And Quarterly and Zero Zero in the ’90s, the goal posts of each shifted closer to the other. Closer still were Kramers Ergot and MOME in the so-called “aughts.” But ever since MOME closed up shop in 2011, Kramers has pretty much had the entire playing field to itself.

Not that other anthologies haven’t turned up here and there, mind you — many of them quite good. But these tended to be one-off affairs, often constructed around an editorially-dictated central theme or conceit, rather than, to invoke a sickeningly over-used term, curated publications whose nominal-to-the-point-of-being-oblique themes have to be teased out by readers by dint of the “running order” of strip presentation, a la Kramers — that is, until now. More specifically, until Now.

Former MOME editor Eric Reynolds has decided to “get back in the game,” so to speak, with a new thrice-yearly anthology that even comes complete with a (poorly-worded, but whatever) “mission statement” of sorts. To quote directly from Reynolds’ introduction : “I want to leverage Fantagraphics’ stature in the marketplace to put out an affordable and ongoing print anthology that showcases as broad a range of quality comic art as possible – and to put it under as many eyes as possible. I want to make an anthology that looks inviting to a casual comics reader but challenges them as they dig deeper. I want to encourage a revival of the short story in the age of long form graphic novels. I want to showcase as diverse a collection of cartoonists and comics as possible, one that provides a full spectrum of what the medium has to offer” — all noble goals, surely, even if the first and the last are, ya know, basically the same thing. Methinks the editor may need — an editor?

Pedantic bullshit aside, though, who am I to argue with Reynolds’ logic? And his opening night gala has a heck of a guest list : Rebecca Morgan provides the eye-catching (to say the least) cover, with three-panel back cover strip by Nick Thorburn; Sara Corbett, Gabrielle Bell, and Kramers‘ own Sammy Harkham contribute one-page strips (all quite strong); Tobias Schalken, Dash Shaw, Tommi Parrish, Kaela Graham, Daria Tessler, Conxita Hererro, and the team of cartoonist Malachi Ward and co-writer Matt Sheean chime in with medium-length strips; and Eleanor Davis, J.C. Menu, Noah Van Sciver, and Antoine Cosse serve up what we’ll call, for lack of a better term (that I can think of at the moment, at any rate) “feature-length” strips. A nice mix of veteran and emerging talent, indeed.

If pressed to pick one “standout work,” I’d probably have to go with Davis’ “Hurt Or Fuck,” a deceptively-simple interpretive piece that expertly uses the gaps in its own internal logic to heighten its emotional resonance and that, in true Davis fashion, doesn’t pack a punch so much as it leaves an invisible mark with a bittersweet (but mostly bitter) sting that lingers for days, but Van Sciver’s “Wall Of Shame” is a superb and eminently relatable autobio story not to be missed, Shaw’s “Scorpio” is an entirely unsubtle but nonetheless highly effective juxtaposition of a difficult childbirth with a just-as-difficult election night 2016 result (hey, a 128-page anthology can’t be expected to — fuck, in my view shouldn’t — avoid at least a little bit of Trump-bashing somewhere along the way), Graham’s “Pretend We’re Orphans” is a lavishly-illustrated “dark fairy tale” that effortlessly recalls memories of being scared in just the right way before bedtime, and Ward and Sheean’s “Widening Horizon” posits an alternate trajectory — extrapolated from a handful of genuinely historical roads not taken — of international space travel that both forces and invites, in equal measure, one to consider Utopian alternatives to any number of societal ills if only, ya know, shit had worked out differently (as in better) in the past.  Any of these strips are worth the price of admission (something we’ll get to momentarily) alone, but to have them all between the same two covers is more than enough to cement Now #1’s place as one of the very best comics of the year.

Are there some misfires to be found here, though? Of course, but even there nobody fails for lack of trying : Hererro’s “Here I Am” is a re-contextualized version of an earlier Bell strip that’s gorgeously drawn, but fails to bring forth anything new from its “source material,” nor to add much by way of a distinctive personality it can call its own; Schalken’s wordless “21 Positions/The Final Frontier” misses its chance to coalesce at the last moment even though it’s right there for the taking (although maybe that’s the whole point and I’m just stupid); Cosse’s “Statue” tries to pack a bit too much “food for thought” into what is a sprawling, languidly-paced visual narrative; Menu’s “S.O.S. Suitcases” has enough going for it on its own merits that its author is just plain wasting his time by leaning on Lloyd Dangle and Gary Panter “influence crutches”; Tessler’s “Songs In The Key Of Grief” take us on an incredible post- “television age” psychedelic journey but fails to clue us in on why we should want to go along for the ride; Parrish’s untitled strip offers a fascinating and informative look at changing (indeed, evolving) gender identity mores and their cause-and-effect relationship with sexual orientation but is, alas, just a touch too earnest and “lecture hall”-ish for its own good. Not a “bad” offering in the lot, by any means, but all examples of strips that set out to do something they don’t quite manage to achieve. “Fascinating but flawed,” I think, is the exact phrase I’m looking for.

It’s in analyzing the whole, though, that things get really interesting : it’s clear that Reynolds has already succeeded, just one issue into things, in doing precisely what he wanted to with Now — there’s a lot of great material to be found here, a lot of “almost great” material, and no real “clunkers” in the bunch. Furthermore, it’s presented nicely (but not too nicely) and at a very reasonable price ($9.99 for 128 pages? Where are you gonna do better than that?) — and for a final flourish, it even manages to incorporate its economic populism into its overall aesthetic, its editorial being short and to the point, its table of contents being printed on the back cover, and its cover stock being of more or less the “standard comic book” variety. The paper’s slick but not anything you wouldn’t find in an Image or Dark Horse comic; its dimensions are no taller — and only slightly wider — than, say, a Marvel or DC “floppy” single issue; it’s squarebound, but just a simple glued binding — no doubt, this is “art comics” packaged for the mass market, and for mass consumption.

And that fact, more than anything, is what convinces me that the “dueling anthologies” paradigm is back — only this time they’re not even “dueling” at all. Honestly, any and all of the strips in Now #1 would feel every bit as “at home” in the next volume of Kramers Ergot. The same aesthetic impulses seem to be driving both publications, and besides, ever-emerging delivery platforms have blown open comics as widely as they have music and film by this point. The old divisions, already diminishing, are gone altogether now and quality work will, one way or another, find its way to an audience.  The only question is whether it will be via a computer screen, a reasonably-priced printed periodical, or a fancy, deluxe, over-sized book complete with numerous bells and whistles. There’s a place for all of it. There’s a market for all of it. Hell, for hungry readers and starving cartoonists alike, there’s definitely a need for all of it.

In that sense, then, what Reynolds and Fantagraphics (who, let’s not forget, also publishes Kramers these days) are doing here is filling in an essential gap, and serving an under-served segment of the comics community. Reading through this book made me realize just how much I’d missed having a top-quality anthology available on a consistent basis at a price that didn’t break the bank. I wish it had happened sooner, absolutely — but I’m glad it’s happening Now.