Kus! Week : “Bonkers” (S! #35)

The blacklight-and-neon-green cover to Bonkers, issue #35 of S! The Baltic Comics Magazine, a product of the imagination of Norwegian cartoonist Erlend Peder Kvam — who also provides one of the anthology’s strongest strips, a sing-song number that features a trio of anthropomorphic animal/space creature hybrids going about their largely-leisurely business with a spring in their step and a shared “hive-mind” between then — announces that the tightly-focused themes that most volumes of this series tether themselves to is pretty well out the window this time out, and that in its place we have an eclectic gathering of artists from around the globe quite literally letting it all hang out. All well and good, right?

But when you crack that cover open, things by and large get even better, as the “gallery-show-in-the-palm-of-your-hand” editorial remit the title has always lived and died by turns out to lend itself very nicely to an “anything goes” assemblage of “raw feed” direct from the subconscious minds of some very interesting minds indeed. It’s tough, I suppose, to say what would fit within the extremely broad framework of a “bonkers” collection, but you’d know damn well if something didn’t — and to the credit of this edition, there are no sore-thumb standouts, but there are plenty of standouts in the more general sense of that term.

Jason Herr regales us with a finely-detailed-in-its-exaggeration journey into cosmic headspaces, Marko Maetamm channels his inner Greg Stump with a noisy debate between shadow-bathed figures of some sort that are superseded altogether by their own word balloons, Brazil’s Fabio Zimbres serves up a slice of bizarro metafiction that is ultimately about both itself and the act of its own creation, Jul Gordon’s strip is a veritable clinic on use of space on the page and the relationship between time and movement, Latvian siblings Ernests and Andrejs Klavins take us to the darkly satirical heart of a trade show whose “trade” appears to be nothing but empty corporate sloganeering, Emilie Gleason depicts a modern office run from a hot tub that has the kind of company “culture” you’d depressingly surmise such a situation would engender, and stalwarts like Theo Ellsworth, Samplerman, and Zane Zlemesa deliver precisely the sort of material you’d expect from them, which is to say something far beyond the expected. And the explicable.

So, yeah, it’s a solid line-up of talent operating on ground that is far less so. Agate Lielpetere, Anna Mlck, Beatrix Urkowitz, David Ozols, Kameeellah, and Konig Lu Q make up a respectable second tier of creators that have produced work commensurate with their talents, and Olaf Ladousse, white largely missing the mark with his experimental offering, at least keeps things interesting in both narrative and visual terms. Karlina Marta Zvirbule’s “story” is the only one that fell completely flat for me, but even there it’s not like you can’t tell that a hefty amount of work effort into it — sometimes the best intentions just lead you to some rather sorry places.

So, yeah, this one’s all over the map — but most every corner, nook, and cranny of that map is well worth checking out. And even if you get lost — and trust me when I say you will —the “running order” the strips are presented in ensures that you’ll always make it back home safely. Changed, perhaps, sure — but if a dull commitment to conservative formalisn is your bag, I think it’s fair to assume odds are good you’d never buy this collection in the first place, anyway, so your loss is no loss.

While ostensibly competing “prestige” anthologies such as Fantagraphics’ Now have largely taken readers to more valleys than peaks this year, S! just keeps on chugging along, delivering the curious goods largely under the radar. Bonkers doesn’t beg for your attention, but it grabs hold of it firmly once you take notice and never lets go.

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Bonkers retails for $13.95 (worldwide shipping is free!) and is available at http://www.komikss.lv/

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Eurocomics Spotlight : Zane Zlemesa’s “Fenix”

Latvian publisher Kus! didn’t need to look too terribly far ( probably just a few towns over, if that ) to find a Zane Zlemesa, the painter/cartoonist who produced the fourth title in their idiosyncratic and consistently-interesting Kus! Mono line — bearing the curious but intriguing title of Fenix — so credit goes to them for introducing a local talent to an international audience, but a “big break” is only what you make of it, I suppose, and the proof, as the saying goes, is always in the pudding. Or, as the case may be, on the pages.

For their part, these pages are certainly visually arresting — Zlemesa’s masterful use of paint is imbued with a fair amount of confidence throughout, and her intuitive understanding of sequential narrative is strong, with her larger-than-normal panels giving her colorful artwork plenty of room to “breathe” while simultaneously allowing for nicely-paced story progression. That story, however, is where we run into a few problems, so we may as well not ignore the elephant in the room any longer —

Zlemesa’s narrative begins on the set of a TV newsroom, which is a great way to accclimate readers to the general and essential character of her fictitious Fenix City locale (the introductory double-page map also helping considerably in this regard) , and the parameters she sets for this pseudo-society are certainly unique, bordering on the compelling, as the town seems founded equally upon the at-first-glance-contradictory endeavors of fine art and casino gambling. Those two worlds are about to come crashing together, though, as a high roller who hits the largest slot jackpot in history has decided to invest his winnings in building a new art museum.

One could be forgiven for assuming that the raison d’etre behind this work was to draw some sort of distinction between the world of art and the world of commerce, gambling being the hyper-charged and perhaps inevitable end point of capitalism in general, but Zlemesa’s narrative instead seems to posit that the two can co-exist and even complement each other in crucial ways, the beauty and richness of art providing a necessary counter-balance to the predatory ugliness of exploitative economic institutions such as casinos, while said casinos can, perhaps, furnish the necessary capital for an arts community to thrive, but who are we kidding? This view is incredibly naive, and to her credit Zlemesa has already internalized this naivete and reflects it back in the sunny, free-wheeling tone of both her art and story. There’s a problem inherent in this approach, though, or at least in Zlemesa’s execution of it, in that there is precisely zero narrative tension on offer here, events simply skipping from the big slot machine win to opening night at the new museum,  and one wonders why she felt compelled to stick with such a straight-forward, if admittedly threadbare, linear progression here at all rather than just eschewing such limiting strictures altogether — as plenty of other Kus! publications have done, often with a sense of outright glee. Go figure.

The TV news anchors we meet at the outset function as the audience’s eyes and ears throughout the book, and as they make their way to the gala opening they have a fascinating, and no doubt symbolically-rich, encounter with one of the mythical Phoenix birds the city is named after (well, one of them does, at any rate — the other doesn’t see a thing), but Zlemesa bizarrely dispenses with this sidebar almost as quickly as she introduces it, leaving a distinct feeling of under-developed ideas in its wake and of genuine potential squandered. It’s frustrating, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (I’m entirely in favor of unconventional narrative structures that challenge the reader to “fill in” a fair number of deliberate “blanks” themselves), but it’s frustration introduced in service of no larger goal, as our protagonists simply arrive at the big event (complete with catered food and a band, as one would expect), and then the story doesn’t “end” per se so much as it just (merely?) stops. It’s a damn good thing that the art in this comic is so vibrant and immersive, because otherwise we’d be firmly in “pretentiousness for its own sake and nothing more” territory here.

I mention the art again not only because it merits the additional praise, but also because I think I’m bound and determined to give you some reason to support this book, since Zlemesa is a talent who may very well have a bright future ahead of her and I’m a firm believer in the evolving aesthetic project that Kus! is engaged in as a publisher, but the more I mull it over, I simply can’t in good conscience recommend that you drop 16 of your hard-earned dollars on this thing. I dearly wish that I could, and it’s entirely possible that a couple more re-reads will reveal more than the three passes through it I’ve already made have, but I really do think I “get” what Zlemesa was going for here — unfortunately, she just doesn’t manage to achieve her aims, and as a result allows a fascinating exercise in so-called “world building,” as well as several pages of very strong (hell, sumptuous) pages of painted artwork, to go to waste in service of a failed narrative experiment. If  you choose to blow off my opinion, though — as is your prerogative — and check Fenix for yourself, it can be ordered directly from the publisher (with shipping “on the house”) at https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/28887654/fenix-zane-zlemea