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/

 

There’s Nothing Else Quite Like Watching Theo Ellsworth Perform “An Exorcism”

There must be something in the water out in Missoula, Montana.

David Lynch hails from there originally, after all — and so does Theo Ellsworth, one of the most intriguing, challenging, mind-bending, and frankly skilled cartoonists around these days. The detailed intricacy of his illustrations is testament to that fact, but it’s the underlying intent running through them — the deep and abiding sense that this is stuff he desperately needs to purge from his subconscious, through his hand, onto paper — that sets Ellsworth’s work apart from that of his contemporaries. There are visions that plague this guy’s mind, and I’m sure he’s grateful to have found an outlet for expressing them.

Shit, I know I’m grateful that he has, and I’m just a humble reader. But Ellsworth’s comics take me places. Dark, haunted, amorphous, undefinable places. Vistas of beauty and bewilderment, where “steady footing” stands definitively revealed as a lie, and malleability charges — or, more likely, shifts — to the forefront as the only, the eternal, the absolute truth. But his books might be well served by having a gentle admonition on their opening pages to the effect of : ” if you can’t let go, then go no further.”

His most recent full-length work,  An Exorcism (Kus! Comics, number three in their “Kus! Mono” series) is probably the purest and most lavish distillation yet of his utterly unique multi-dimensional view of existence, a — if you’ll forgive me invoking a cheesy song title — journey to the center of the mind that is by turns harrowing and humorous, unsettling and unhindered, vaguely familiar and decidedly alien. I’m not sure if anyone who’s never fucked around with psychedelics will have anything remotely like a frame of reference with which to approach this book, and it may not be healthy to even try. Fortunately for you all, I ingested a fair amount of acid in my youth and am, therefore, qualified (in my own mind, at any rate) to give analyzing it a shot.

“When I reach the blue surface, my exorcism treatment will begin,” our nameless protagonist informs us by way of a back-cover blurb (the comic itself is a wordless affair), before cluing us into the fact that he’s “not ready for this,” and that all he knows is that “this is going to be a harsh experience.” Which, have no fear, absolutely proves to be the case. But that’s only part of it.

Inanimate objects come to ghastly life, creatures of nightmare assuming physical (?) form, the makeshift walls between “fantasy” and “reality” melting away to nothingness, neuroses externalizing themselves and upping the ante in terms of the torments they cause — these are just the beginning. The portal. The gateway. There’s always another door — even if it’s not, strictly speaking, a door — and what’s on the other side is invariably more difficult, but necessary, to face than what came before. Ellsworth’s visual world is layered, hopelessly complex, painstakingly detailed, unfathomably dense, and his storytelling skills can best be summed up with the no-doubt-inadequate term “relentless.” Every page looks like it must have taken years to draw, and the fact that he can just gear up and do it all again — and again — and again? Goddamn, but I don’t even know where that ability comes from.

And do I even want to? I mean, please don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that somebody’s imagination is this untethered, this frenetic, this truly (dictionary definition here) fantastic — but I’m sorta relieved that it’s not mine. Ellsworth is one of those visionaries who makes art for the noblest and most therapeutic reason of all — because he has no other choice. You know this kind of art when you see it, and you know it from page first to page last here.

And yet the sheer intensity of this head-trip doesn’t preclude it from being an enjoyable one, either. You could be forgiven, in fact, for feeling a rush of excitement as you flip each page, anticipation for seeing what the artist comes up with next just runs that high. Anything’s possible. Rules — apart from his strict self-imposed guideline of three two-panel pages followed by a single-panel “splash” page — are out the window. If it can be thought of, odds are better than good that it’ll show up. If it can’t be thought of, hell — it’ll probably show up twice.

The terrors and wonders balance each other out pretty nicely here, but not so much in a matter of alternating rotation in that of a two-for-one. What is terrifying is also amazing, what is amazing is also terrifying. There’s no need for artificial distinctions to be drawn, nor does Ellsworth give you the option to engage in such rationalization for its own sake — and in a final and decidedly appropriate move, author and protagonist also reveal themselves to be one and the same, and you realize, of course, that you knew this all along. That it couldn’t be any other way. Which means that An Exorcism can also boast of one more distinction — it’s the out-and-out freakiest autobio comic that anyone has ever conceived of.

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If you’re ready to explore the deepest recesses of Theo Ellsworth’s singularly brilliant, and singularly scary, mind, An Exorcism is available for $14.95 (with free shipping to the US!) from our good friends at Kus! : https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/26881870/an-exorcism-theo-ellsworth