COLUMNS

High-Low High-Low

Reading Periodicals

In an age when the direct market has caused companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly to almost completely curtail their publishing of traditional comic books, it’s heartening to see so many smaller publishers and micropresses fully embracing the concept. For a young cartoonist, having the opportunity to publish short stories without the pressure of having to conceptualize and pitch a longer “graphic novel” is an invaluable experience. What follows is a survey of ten comics of various shapes and sizes from small press publishers like Blank Slate, micropresses like Retrofit, Uncivilized Books, and Colosse, and self-publishers.

Let’s begin with two artists strongly influenced by the underground and ’80s “alternative” era of comics, Noah Van Sciver and Joseph Remnant. The two mine some very similar territory: desperate losers, urban decay, the fruitless search for meaning and connection, maintaining hope in the worst of situations, and above all else, an abiding sympathy for their characters. In terms of visual style, I like to refer to the two artists as the Flopsweat Twins, because so many of their characters have huge beads of sweat pouring from their foreheads. Van Sciver works with a local Denver comic shop to produce his one-man anthology Blammo!, but his latest short comic, 1999, was published by Box Brown’s Retrofit Comics, a micropress funded by Kickstarter.

1999 ($5, 32 pages) is my favorite of Van Sciver’s comics to date. It’s the most clever and complex of his comics, filled with a grim sense of doom and ambiguity that’s tied to the Y2K panic. His lead character, Mark, is a college dropout who works at a sandwich shop and falls in love with Nora, a fellow shift worker who claims to have an open marriage right before they engage in daily sex on the job. Things naturally go awry. The ending of the comic, beautifully set up with a clever bit of foreshadowing, turns the drama entirely on its head after pulling the reader along through sequences that seem to make no sense, all against the backdrop of a doomsday event that never happened. That Mark will have to keep on living the same miserable life isn’t explicitly stated, but it seems the obvious outcome. Van Sciver’s line and layout skills have become refined without losing any of the raw, nervous energy that’s always been a key element in his comics. He varies his layouts from page to page, slowly adding more panels per page as the comic proceeds and things get more suffocating for Mark. Zip-a-tone style effects are added during both sex scenes and larger images of emotional turmoil, equating the two as a kind of vertigo. He’s great at drawing plain-to-ugly characters wearing drab clothing who slouch a lot. This is a funny comic about sad people, which is starting to become a specialty of Van Sciver’s.

If Van Sciver’s drawings border are grotesque and expressive, then Remnant’s characters in contrast are cartoony and crisp. The Crumb influence is obvious, with the slumped-over body language, the dense hatching and cross-hatching used for frequently clever effect (like an overbearing boss always depicted in shadow with heavy hatching), and the parade of desperate characters. Unlike Crumb, Remnant is less interested in working out his id than in telling stories about protagonists who are hard to like but nonetheless evince sympathy. The first story in Blindspot #2 ($5, 32 pages), “Delusions of Grandeur”, is about a narcissistic egomaniac whose music draws little more than yawns. The square glasses and unkempt hair paint a portrait of a particular kind of self-serious hipster, who is about to chuck away his career when he gets a single e-mail of praise from someone who was given his album because it couldn’t be sold to a used CD store. This is a great example of how Remnant gets away from the direct autobiographical complaining of the first issue and changes things up just enough to make his experiences easy to relate to. The artists and creative types that take themselves most seriously are frequently those who are struggling the most, and Remnant nails this tendency in this story about an otherwise abhorrent character.

“It Changed Everything” pops one character’s hubris in the form of a fart joke, as a sure-thing date goes awry. It’s an OK gag as far as it goes, but I’m glad Remnant confined it to just two pages.

The showstopper of the issue is “Lip Candy”, featuring an ad writer named Bill Wilkinson who is pretty much the opposite of Don Draper: covered in flop sweat, portly, disheveled, paranoid, and hostile. Trying to get one up on his admittedly smarmy and younger coworker, he goes behind that coworker’s back to get an audience with his boss to present an ad campaign for a lip balm that he sees as a sure thing. Instead, the whole plan backfires spectacularly and in the most humiliating way possible. Bill has a lot of bad things happen to him, but they’re entirely his fault and no one lets him off the hook–not even his bartender, who hilariously dresses him down instead of offering him unconditional support. The end of the story, after Bill finds he can’t even get revenge on his coworker without screwing up, does offer a slight ray of hope, but it’s hard-earned. The schlubby Bill is a triumph of character design, looking old-fashioned yet timeless in his ill-fitting suit and five o’clock shadow.  Throw in an old-fashioned letters page, a tribute strip to Harvey Pekar (for whom Remnant illustrated the fine swan song Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland), and an autobio bit of slice-of-life about a security guard that is very much in Pekar’s style and voice, and you have an enormously satisfying comic by a talented cartoonist who has just started to realize his considerable potential.

Going back to Box Brown, he’s made quite an impact on the comics scene in the past year with a number of well-liked and award-winning comics as well as his ambitious Retrofit project. His own entry in this monthly series of comics is Chubby Chasers ($4, 24 pages) , a minicomics-sized comic that partakes in the Dave Cooper aesthetic by way of Gilbert Hernandez. The cover, an overlapping series of circles with various shades of pink, is in itself a clever visual gag that still manages to capture that particular aesthetic of big, beautiful women. The main story is about a schlubby drug store clerk who meets a big woman at a club and winds up having the best sexual experience of his life. Despite this fact, he’s still embarrassed to be with a bigger woman and doesn’t want to tell his workmates, totally oblivious to the fact that he’s a loser in a dead-end job. When he gets fired by his boss (herself a bigger woman), Brown cleverly has the character deflect blame to all fat women in general, even as his previous date is going out and having a good time yet again. The Gilbert Hernandez influence is even more pronounced in the back-up story, which is four days in the life of the painter Peter Paul Rubens. The painter was well known for painting bigger women, and Brown sets up the influences for his desire—how he thought about painting, how he dealt with typical models, and how he moved on to a different subject—as single-page gags. The latter story is more compelling overall than the feature, which feels a bit predictable.

On the other hand, Brown’s book from Blank Slate, The Survivalist ($8, 44 pages), is an impressive achievement because it turns a right-wing conspiracy theory wingnut into a compelling and sympathetic leading man. Half the book follows an alt-comics lump toiling away in loneliness, typical except for the fact that he’s a conspiracy theorist. As the story begins, he awkwardly interacts with people at his job (lecturing two women on the dangers of vaccine-induced autism) as a meteor heads toward earth. The Rush Limbaugh-type radio personality he admires insists that the astronomical threat is liberal scare-mongering … until the meteor actually hits. Our protagonist, Noah, survives because he has begun sleeping in the bomb shelter that his father built in the 1950s. After the crash, he meets another survivor and forms a tenuous friendship with her, even as he works on drawing comics (his true love). Brown slowly unravels Noah’s story in light of his friendship with Fatima, peeling away the layers of pain and despair that he wrapped up in his conspiracy theories. Fatima’s insistence that everyone has a story to tell, “if we are truly open and honest about it. Even yours,” serves as motivation for Noah, and allows Brown to prove the same point. The end of the story is genuinely moving as Noah finds a way of coming to terms with his old grief as he deals with new grief. Brown’s slightly grotesque and cartoony style (somewhere between Beto and Chris Ware) looks great in the Blank Slate “Chalk Marks” series format, with its large-periodical size, dust cover replete with diagrams, and excellent paper stock.

The Chalk Marks line is specifically designed for young artists publishing new works. This one-and-done format is perfect for those cartoonists who aren’t yet ready to produce the graphic novels that the market tends to value most, by giving the artists the backing, expertise, and production values of a publisher that’s willing to push short-form comics as worthwhile in and of themselves. Small press publishers can get away with this because so much of their business comes from the convention circuit, and I predict that the Chalk Marks books will fly off their table when Blank Slate comes to SPX for the first time this year. A couple of recent examples include the all-ages book Dinopopulous ($8, 44 pages), by Nick Edwards; and A Long Day of Mr. James-Teacher ($8, 44 pages), by Harvey James.

Edwards’ book is about an imaginative young boy who has real-world concerns about trying to get a girl to like him, but is still more interested in the adventures he goes on with his talking dinosaur. This comic is a mash-up of Indiana Jones, role-playing games, video games, puzzles, and activity pages–all things that Edwards himself clearly delights in. This is obviously an instance of a comic drawn by an artist to entertain himself, and it’s one of the more complex and rich all-ages comics I’ve seen. The story itself is simple, but Edwards alternates a simple, cartoony style with highly-detailed eye-pops, mazes, and surreal imagery to create a story that’s slight as a story but entertaining as a journey through an environment. Edwards reminds me a little of Jon Chad and his comics for kids, Leo Geo in particular. He’s not yet the storyteller that Chad is, but there’s still a sense of excitement on every page.

If Edwards’ comic is noisy, then Harvey James’ comic is quiet. It’s an autobio story about a single day spent as a teacher in South Korea, depicting the artist’s passion and insecurity as he deals with a tough mentor and students who (he believes) no longer respect him. The insights gained here are small ones, with no special resolution to the conflict in the course of the story. It’s the story of a single day–no more, no less–with typical highs and lows. James doesn’t go out of his way to put himself down; rather, he’s honest about all of his emotions, be they positive or negative. What distinguishes this comic is James’ skill as a cartoonist. I can’t be sure of his influences, but it looks like there’s a bit of Jeff Smith in there in how he draws exaggerated character behavior, slows time down to create a gag, and balances cartoony and naturalistic drawing. A sequence at the end of the book, in which he draws his characters in the rain, is simply beautiful cartooning as the forms of his characters melt into the rain and become just patterns of lines. As with all of the books featured in this series, there’s a tremendous sense of confidence on display on these pages; the cartoonists seem to have tried as hard as possible to merit the benefits of the format and opportunity they’ve been given.

One of the most intriguing art objects I’ve seen is Sophie Yanow’s In Situ ($12, 40 pages), a comic published by Montreal’s Colosse as the first in its “Exports” series. It looks less like a comic than it does an interesting, slender paperback that one might find at a store like St. Mark’s Bookshop. This is an innovative, clever diary strip book that is strongly influenced by the poetic abstraction of John Porcellino. (Yanow is even seen wearing a King-Cat t-shirt in the course of the book.) The story finds Yanow being offered a grant to draw comics full time in Montreal, while she finds herself betwixt and between her hometown of Oakland. Yanow tries all sorts of formal tricks and visual styles to go along with her frequently opaque and personal storytelling references. It’s less important that the reader know what’s going on on a day-to-day basis than it is understanding what Yanow is struggling with on an emotional, political, creative, and philosophical basis. Yanow varies her line, going from a slightly blotchy Gabrielle Bell style heavy on spotted blacks to clear-line naturalism to hasty scribbles to cubist-inspired drawings of motion to single drawings split across six panels.

This change of style lends a visual representation to Yanow’s feelings of everything being possible in a new, exciting creative environment but feeling equally drawn to her home and the loves she’s left behind. No romance is more important than the city itself, as she’s away from Oakland during the contentious Occupy Oakland that inspired vicious police crackdowns. The last page of the book is a sort of recapitulation of the work as a whole, as she runs through different styles on a panel-to-panel basis in a nearly-unbroken 2×3 panel grid. In the last four panels, she writes, “Decided/ The only things worth doing:/ Dancing, drawing/ Smashin’ the state.” The last image is the cover image: a contorted, dancing figure with an obscured face, a dancing anarchist, drawing her own revolution. This is a beautiful first major work by an artist who is quite clearly concerned about how she affects the world, in terms of both art and politics.

Another personal work that’s about the same size and shape of In Situ is Mardou’s The Sky In Stereo ($5, 52 pages). Mardou has a knack for creating characters who feel achingly real without actually dipping into the autobio well. The British cartoonist here writes about Iris, a 17-year-old girl in Manchester who starts the comic by saying, “I’m so bad at this.” She’s referring to being stoned, but it’s also clearly a representation of how she feels about her entire drab life. What follows is an attempt to change things by way of a flirtation with a cool guy at her fast-food job. Mardou’s eye and ear for detail and dialogue is uncanny, perfectly capturing the simultaneous sense of ennui and excitement that something amazing might happen. She has a simple and sometimes even shabby line that nonetheless adeptly captures slight modulations in emotion; the looseness of her line allows her to focus on expressiveness and gesture in her characters.

The comic and its protagonist are mean and petty at times in the way that downtrodden characters can get, but there’s also a sense of desperate beauty to be found at the end of this first issue. Drugs are a running through-line in the comic: a means of escape, a means of fitting in (and “doing it wrong”), a means of adding color and laughing. When one of the characters tries heroin and likes it, it leads to an interesting set of emotional twists for the protagonist, who partly wants to say she’ll go along with him and is partly frightened until the issue’s climax. Mardou crams most of her pages into nine-panel grids, making the reader feel cramped and trapped along with the characters. The result is both uncomfortable and strangely intimate, as we’re forced to identify and sympathize with the characters even when they make questionable choices.

One of my favorite small presses is Revival House, and they’ve upped the ante in terms of production with the first issue of Malachi Ward’s comic Ritual #1 ($6, 30 pages). It’s magazine-sized, like the Chalk Marks books, though without the dust covers. Half of the comic is a slice-of-life comic following the slow disintegration of a relationship through the eyes of a slightly portly blonde woman who is haunted by a dream she has about beetles burrowing under her boyfriend’s skin while she silently watches. The story concludes with the power going out in their building, prompting the couple to hang out with their female next-door neighbor.

The comic then segues into a creepy, distancing Invasion of the Body Snatchers pastiche that nonetheless is emotionally connected to the first half of the comic when the protagonist sees her boyfriend and her next-door neighbor making out in front of her, after her boyfriend makes a cutting comment about her piano playing. Everything seems real, despite the strange pustules on each of their faces, eerily mimicking the beetles seen earlier in the issue. Did the strange flash of light they all saw herald their infestation? The issue ends with a tense chase scene and an ending that isn’t exactly a happy one. Ward really hits on something interesting in this comic whose style has the distancing cartoony quality of Chris Ware along with a more lumpy sense of character design. By creating a believable domestic scene whose tension and quiet desperation is all too familiar to alt-comics fans, Ward is able to cleverly subvert the expectations of the story while still heightening those feelings. Ward is an exciting young talent who is traveling the fusion path à la Michael DeForge, but in a completely different way.

Finally, Tom K’s Uncivilized Books just published the newest comic by Gabrielle Bell, one originally released on her website in July of 2011. July Diary ($6, 52 pages) is the result of Bell drawing and publishing a strip a day during that period, forcing her to show her work to an audience, warts and all. Bell and Vanessa Davis are my favorite comics diarists, though their approach and attitude couldn’t be more different. The quintessential Bell quote from her autobio comics appears here: “I am so lonely…and yet I can’t stand the company of anyone.” For a comic that wallows in this contradiction, Bell proves that she’s a top-notch humorist and even absurdist on page after page. Her comics persona is that of a barely competent human being (afraid of being called “traitor” by street people) who stumbles through life, getting into all sorts of awkward and amusing situations. What’s interesting is that for the purposes of doing this strip every day, she found herself manipulating her life so as to produce funny anecdotes, going so far as to follow some strangers into a bar in order to hear their stories.

Even if Sammy Harkham declares that Bell hangs out “with a bunch of lunatics,” they are sterling comedic catalysts for her comics. Whether she’s depicting her misadventures with Karen Sneider on a temp computer installation job (which feature an excellent fart joke), her observations of a huge statue of Echo’s head in a park and how the different kinds of crowds affect her impact (ultimately imagining the rest of Echo waking up and going on a rampage), or the insults hurled by her ex-boyfriend Michel, Bell’s mix of bemusement, affection and awkwardness make for reliable laughs. This is what really distinguishes Bell’s diary comics from others: while she’s trying to share some of her feelings of disconnection, she’s always doing it in the form of a humorous situation of some kind. Bell’s ability to make funny drawings is underrated, and she increasingly relies on it in this comic as she starts to run out of ideas, as in the drawings of various disgusting bodily functions that she overhears someone talking about. Even Bell’s frustration at running out of inspiration is funny, as she starts to make up imaginary vacations where she eats volcanoes. Funnier still is that the big party for one of her books that she’s nervous about is something she doesn’t want to talk about, even if she apparently did all sorts of crazy things. Even in her own comics, Bell is uncomfortable with being the star, just one of the many contradictions that make her work so interesting.

FILED UNDER: , , , , , , , ,

38 Responses to Reading Periodicals

  1. Tom Murphy says:

    Thanks for an excellent survey of a field in which it’s sometimes hard to find the diamonds in the dust.

    Nobrow’s “17×23″ series performs a similar function to the “Chalk Marks” series (in a smaller format): http://www.nobrow.net/category/products/comic-graphic?producttag=17×23-series

  2. Box Brown says:

    If you’re in the US and looking for The Survivalist you can order direct from me: http://retrofit.storenvy.com/products/327000-the-survivalist-by-box-brown

  3. jasontmiles says:

    “In an age when the direct market has caused companies like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly to almost completely curtail their publishing of traditional comic books…”

    the direct market is not the lone cause

    thanks for the reviews

  4. Rob Clough says:

    No, but it’s a big reason.

    By the way, look for a Profanity Hill review very soon.

  5. Kim Thompson says:

    Pamphlets were killed by the cartoonists, who methodically sucked every aspect that made them appealing out of them until readers got fed up.

    * The frequency was appealing, so the cartoonists all slowed down and made them annual.

    * The reading experience was appealing, so all the cartoonists decided to do graphic novels and use the pamphlets to dribble out their graphic novels in tiny segments.

    * The cheapness was appealing, so all the cartoonists started asking for fancier packaging that drove the prices up.

    So where you used to follow a cartoonist who would, three or four times a year, deliver an inexpensive, self-contained, satisfying read, you ended up shelling out twice as much, once a year, for Part Five of a graphic novel that would be released four years later in a book you then had to buy. This is why readers deserted the format in droves.

    I love graphic novels. I fully understand exactly why the cartoonists pursued exactly that route, and their work is almost universally much the better for it. But the comic book pamphlet wasn’t made as a piecemeal delivery system for graphic novels, and over a decade this near-universal shift to graphic novels killed the alternative comics pamphlet stone cold dead. R.I.P.

  6. Iestyn Pettigrew says:

    Now that is something I totally agree with. How many shiny paged card covered chapters in someone’s saga need to exist.
    Yu need those throw away funny things that you don’t mind sharing around your friends not something you have to save up for and hope is mind blowing otherwise you feel like you’ve wasted your money.

  7. noah van sciver says:

    I still love comic books. The short story is becoming a lost art in comics. I’m of the mind that you should do as many short stories as possible before you try to write a longer one. Also they weigh less.

  8. Kim Thompson says:

    Agreed! But with the pamphlet format near dead and anthologies dropping like flies, that’s tricky too. It’s a fallen world…

  9. Kit says:

    Michael DeForge is an interesting object lesson in the post-pamphlet generation – he’s pumping out enough material that he could probably support an eight-times-a-year floppy series, but with that not being a current paradigm, instead he does multiple pamphlets from different publishers, edits/publishes/contributes to anthologies, does back-ups for licensed books, and so forth.

    Evan Dorkin just did an issue’s worth of Dork! across three month’s Dark Horse Presents; this is apparently going to be collected as a House Of Fun Colour Special floppy, though, rather than as Dork #12…

  10. BVS says:

    thank you. loaning comics and making mix tapes was how you made friends in the 90s. at least that’s how it was done where I come from. the demand for alt comic books was there, people bought those comic books and shops did their best to keep what they could in stock. the problem was the supply wasn’t delivering. alt comics were never a game for your new comics wednesday customer. but when you had a few quality series coming out about 2-3 times a year then certain folks had a reason to show up at the shop at lest every month. people used to come in to the comic shop all the time saying: whens the next frank coming out? wheres eight ball at? is there going to be any more dirty plotte? whys there been a year since the last stray bullets? got a new palookaville? got meat cake? got a new optic nerve? acme? black hole? peep show? where are all my god damn comic books at! by about 2003 big foot sightings were more common that a new issue of any of those books. and that particular kind of fan had felt abandoned and moved on to other stuff.

  11. Jeet Heer says:

    This is a fascinating and necessary conversation but what’s missing here is a sense of the life-cycle of cartoonists. Putting out 3 or 4 pamphlet form comics filled mostly with short pieces is very much a young cartoonist’s game. It’s a good way to hone storytelling skills and find a narrative voice and visual style. Look at how Clowes used Lloyd Llewellynand the early issues of Eightball. But as an artist develops, its natural to want to do longer and more ambitious narratives which might not fit the pamphlet form (for the reasons Kim indicated). Clowes again illustrates the case — he’s simply outgrown Eightball and the stand-alone graphic novel is a fitter fit for him.
    The main problem right now is that there’s too much pressure for young cartoonists to do big graphic novels and the pamphlet form isn’t robust enough to support the sort of career that Clowes, the Hernandez Bros., Bagge, Brown, and Seth enjoyed.
    But as I said before, the death of the alternative pamphlet is overstated — the cartoonists Rob Clough discusses are all doing interesting work and there is a small raft of great boutique publishers like Koyama to support them. The audience isn’t as big as it was in the old Eightball and Hate days but its a very passionate and interested audience. Remarkable alternative pamphlets are still being done.

  12. R. Maheras says:

    I think a good litmus test for the life cycle of cartoonists is simple: Look at cartoonists who were well-known, highly productive and financially secure in the 1980s (or even 1990s) and compare their situations then to their situations now.

    Are they still gainfully employed creating comics? Are they struggling to find work? Or are they completely out of the business?

    If most of the TOP creators from back then are struggling, you can bet the situation for the majority of the mid-level and lower-level talent is far worse.

  13. Briany Najar says:

    Jeet:

    “Putting out 3 or 4 pamphlet form comics filled mostly with short pieces is very much a young cartoonist’s game… But as an artist develops, its natural to want to do longer and more ambitious narratives which might not fit the pamphlet form (for the reasons Kim indicated).”

    And all musicians end up making concept albums, it’s completely inevitable and necessary. Mind you, concept albums are just a stepping stone towards opera. No mature artist dallies with brevity.

    TPBs/graphic novels are a product of the evolution of the industry, not necessarily the maturation of an individual cartoonist. An artist, if so disposed, can spend their entire life working within tight spacial/material constraints without frustration, it’s down to their creativity how they develop their approach to finding ways of using that space. Some obvious examples exist within the discipline of newspaper strips.

    The eclectic, heterogeneous nature of ensemble-produced anthologies is sociable and creates many pleasing tensions. Pieces rub shoulders, clash, compete and interrelate under one roof, experienced adjacently, bound together.

    Anthologies are a great portal for the casual, curious reader and a form with its own unique aesthetic merits.

    Some cartoonists are neither prolific nor formally ambitious and I don’t want to be denied their work for those reasons alone.

    The 1950s was a great time for US comic-books, bugger the Silver Age.

    In some countries/cultures/traditions/vernaculars, to this day, anthologies of short comic strips has always been the norm. The decompression of comic strips, and the subsequent invention of the graphic novel as we know it, may be inevitable, but that doesn’t make it a necessary development of comics per se.

    Jorge Luis Borges was a very fine writer, justly lauded.

    P.S. Sorry, I kind of lost track, the original point I wanted to make was that the life-cycle of cartoonists is plastic and often heavily influenced (coerced, even) by what they percieve as the culture of the medium and, of course, the available market – not just some teleological movement towards creating the grandest object that can fit through a door.
    Maybe I did get that across, I dunno.
    Elegant I aint.

  14. Briany Najar says:

    dammit, there was supposed to be a little closed tag after my first paragraph, saying /cheeky sarcasm, just to take the potential edge off of it.

  15. Briany Najar says:

    I am such an (how you say…) armchair quaterbacker.
    Apologies. Especially to those who are actually trying to make something work.

  16. Iestyn says:

    The Japanese manage to produce interesting and large scale works published i anthologies, as do many european comics. Infact, you could argue that the Japanese model matured by moving away from single story books to anthology titles so there is no inevitability.

  17. Thanks, Rob.

    I’m reminded how much I love the comic-book format whenever I get my hands on one by Adrian Tomine, Ethan Rilly or Box Brown, to name but three recent examples of creators who know how to craft short comics that actually embrace the comic-book format they’re published in.

    Unfortunately, I tend to miss most of these types of books — partly because I’m overseas and don’t have access to a brick-and-mortar store that puts them on display, but also because I’m not aware of any online place that makes it easy to keep track of what’s being published in this particular format; this means that, unless I’m actively searching for a given book, it’s unlikely for me to find it.

    If there were a site that collects solicitation information for non-genre comic-book releases on a monthly basis, I’m sure that would help getting more of them out there. (Provided there isn’t one already, and I’m just not aware of it.)

    This survey is much appreciated, at any rate.

  18. David says:

    Great post.
    Big thanks for that, Rob.
    D.

  19. Derik Badman says:

    “But as an artist develops, its natural to want to do longer and more ambitious narratives which might not fit the pamphlet form”

    I’m with Briany on this one.

    There may be cultural pressure (both in the comics subculture and in culture at large) to do longer and more ambitious works (though, I think it also a fallacy to mix the two) and there may be economic and industrial reasons to make longer comics, but neither make is a natural part of artistic development.

    I wish there were more comic artists that focused on shorter work rather than so many attempting long work that, in the end, does not repay length with depth.

  20. There are many reasons for the “death” of alternative pamphlet comics, the blame can’t be laid solely at the feet of the cartoonists, the publishers, or the market. It was a combination of all three (at least).

    That said, as Rob points out in the article, the format is alive and, I’d say, well, in certain sections of the comics world. What were seeing is a whole shift in the way comics are produced and consumed, both artistically and economically.

    These books still exist, with vital work being produced at a regular rate, except they’re not from established publishers, and they don’t have the traditional distribution methods of the direct market or bookstore models.

    Comics is just responding to the the seismic shifts almost all media are experiencing, and, I think, quite admirably. I look forward to what’s coming next.

  21. Rob Clough says:

    It’s the indy band model , thanks to the ever-increasing number of small press comics shows that are popping up regionally. Publishers like Sparkplug cleverly sold a lot of books at these shows, as people would actively ask for things like the next issue of Reich.

    It’s a step beyond the minicomics model–the artist is not solely responsible for the production or distribution of their comic books when they work with a micropublisher. In turn, the micropublisher takes very small risks relative to Fantagraphics by just having a few comics that they publish at a time.

    Having a variety of reliable and knowledgable distributors like John P is also very important, especially for international comics.

    Finally, if you haven’t seen it already, Chuck Forsman’s Muster List website is an incredible resource for finding and ordering minicomics:

    http://muster-list.com/

  22. I had not kept up with comics in general and “alt” comics in particular since around the late 1990′s until the last few years when I regained an interest. Going to my local comics shop it was very frustrating not to be able to pick up a single issue or anthology to get my bearings and find new artists I could enjoy. Thanks to the Internet, and especially Tumblr, within the last year I have discovered so many new artists I am so excited about and have been having great comics arrive in my mailbox regularly. I got a ‘variety pack’ from Retrofit a few months ago and opening it I felt an excitement I hadn’t felt for years like when I’d discover it was a good week at the comics shop.
    I understand the economics as Kim described it earlier, but I really think it’s a shame that the only anthologies I see the more established publishers putting out seem to be in a more expensive book format. Plus, when I would pick up ‘Mome’, so many of the stories were serials so I came in in the middle. Why not publish something cheaper and, not to stifle their creativity but, request the artists try to write short self contained stories? Maybe this has been tried and proven not to work. The audience for that kind of thing may not be bothering to go to comic stores any more anyway, you would all know better than I.
    Anyway, the main thing I wanted to share for those wanting to discover more new stuff like I’ve been doing is Charles Forsman’s excelling list he’s keep up of mini-comics artists and publishers.
    http://charlesforsman.com/muster-list.html/

  23. oh yeah, and thanks for the great article Rob! more new stuff for me to look into and buy.

  24. R. Fiore says:

    What occurs to me is that the traditional comic book in the commercial realm has gone from being a cheap product for a mass audience to a premium product for a specialty audience that still wants to go the comic shop to buy new comics every week. The only reason they still exist is that this audience is willing to pay three or four dollars for a comic book. A customer base that wants to buy your product every week gives you a strong incentive to continue supplying the product.

    As for the alternative sphere, I would note that back in the days of underground comics even someone as prolific as Robert Crumb wouldn’t come out with more than two or three comic books in a year, and most wouldn’t do more than one or two. The period where a non-mainstream comic maintained a regular schedule was purely an outgrowth of the direct market, which presented the possibility competing on the same playing field. The difference between mainstream model comics and alternative model comics was that the former provide their creators with a steady up-front revenue stream, while for the latter the pay comes way at the back end.

  25. This was such a wonderful surprise! I was intrigued by the cover after I was drawn over to the table by FuckShits.

    Easily worth the $8.

  26. I just realized I didn’t say this was at CAKE. But this was at CAKE. I really hope that con is there for years to come.

  27. Todd Drucker says:

    Thanks for the piece, Rob. I believe the individual issue format is alive and well but you do have to dig to find the gems. Sciver and Remnant’s stuff is particularly enjoyable. Tim Lane is also doing solid work with Happy Hour in America. Let’s not forget King Cat. I’m fine with certain aspects of the graphic novel format and understand the business case for it. Still, with individual issues I find a true connection to the immediacy of the work. I especially enjoy the letters sections, which are often hilarious. I recently started picking up the back issues of Eightball and the first thing I do is head for the letters. Great stuff.

  28. TimR says:

    For what it’s worth, I recently tried an experiment of putting some copies of my (xeroxed b&w magazine dimensions) comic in a local corner grocery store (I’m lucky to live somewhere this still exists) and to my surprise they actually sold. They were priced at $1.99. Who knows if I can expand on that but I’m very encouraged by it because I don’t care much for this model of selling pricey comics to upscale niche consumers.

  29. Kit says:

    What occurs to me is that the traditional comic book in the commercial realm has gone from being a cheap product for a mass audience to a premium product for a specialty audience that still wants to go the comic shop to buy new comics every week. The only reason they still exist is that this audience is willing to pay three or four dollars for a comic book

    This comment is itself living in the 1990s – it’s now a premium product for a specialty audience that’s willing to order from multiple sources on the internet and pay $15 for a comic boox.

  30. Eric Reynolds says:

    Great piece.

  31. Sophie Yanow says:

    Thanks for the nice review, Rob. In the States, In Situ can also be got from John P. at Spit and a Half (http://spitandahalf.blogspot.com/).

    For the record, I didn’t receive a grant to go to Montreal, rather I was offered a space in a studio for an artist residency, and got to work with Colosse and artists I admire there. I lived at my parents’ house for 3 months in order to save the money to get to MTL and live here! No shame!

  32. Rob Clough says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Sophie, and the ordering info. I hope to see more comics from you soon.

  33. Ayo says:

    For my money, the shorter the better. “I like short songs,” two minutes the get the eff off of the stage. There’s six other bands here, who do you think you are?

    Surgical strike comics: get in, drop the payload and fly back to base.

    Basically, graphic novels are like minicomics or indie issues with lots of baking soda mixed in. Watered down, stretched and stepped on.

    Good things come in small packages and Titanic was a boat too large for its own good.

  34. Ed A. says:

    Great article, thanks TCJ.

    I very much enjoyed Box Brown’s ‘The Survivalist’. It’s an impressive example of how a short form comic can pack a powerful punch and as a printed art-object it represents far better value for money than most digital comics sold through the likes of comiXology (or indeed most comics sold through the direct market). The production values of Chalk Marks are very impressive and I’d also recommend another comic they released: Joe Decie’s ‘The Accidental Salad’.

    Speaking as one of the “specialty audience that still wants to go the comic shop to buy new comics every week” R. Fiore mentioned above, I wouldn’t be quick to dismiss the bricks and mortar comics books store. In the years I’ve been a regular at mine I’ve seen the place get more and more business – not less – and (like the music industry) I think we’re moving into a new culture-industry paradigm that favours a proliferation of niche markets/interests in place of the top-down era of 20th century radio, TV, Cinema and Big Publishing.

    Collectively, as comics lovers, we seem to have an obsession with the decline of the medium yet I don’t buy into that narrative any more. The medium is diversifying and attracting new readers, while on the business side (as the article above says) there’s new micro-presses springing up. Kickstarter allowed Solipsistic Pop (a UK alt/indie comics anthology) to be a viable publisher, with it’s creator Tom Humberstone producing a new series of comics through the same imprint. I see a bright future for comics.

  35. Rob Clough says:

    It’s a similar model to the independent bookstore or record store that stays in business because they offer quality customer service and a diversity of products that the customer didn’t know they wanted before they walked in, but really want to buy before they leave. It’s owner-as-curator, zeroing in on the customer to figure out what they might want. My city (Durham, NC) has a highly successful record store (Bull City Records) that is still in business because people walk in and ask the owner what they should listen to. The owner isn’t a millionaire or anything, but he stays in business because he’s built up that client base–especially younger people. Andrew Neal of nearby Chapel Hill Comics does something similar for comics fans. This model requires a high level of passion, expertise and work on the part of the owner, with no true guarantee of success, but bless those who feel the calling.

  36. Kristine says:

    Don’t worry, we got the humor.

    But don’t undervalue your serious points:
    “Some cartoonists are neither prolific nor formally ambitious and I don’t want to be denied their work for those reasons alone.”
    Amen, brother.

    Great article, and I think this has been a terrific few years for indy comics, if you have the luxury of going to small press conventions. I am moderately fortunate in that regard.

  37. Rob Clough says:

    I think Jeet hits the nail on the head when he notes that pamphlet comics are a young man’s game. Same with contributing to a lot of anthologies.

    To me, these things are actually essential for young artists. The old dictum about needing to draw a thousand pages before you get your first good one has some basis in fact. The only way to get better is to keep drawing, and the best way to do that is to tamp down one’s ambitions and do shorter work first.

    It may be hard to find some of these comics, especially the anthologies, but they’re worth one’s time. I’m doing a feature on recent anthologies for my High-Low blog in a couple of weeks, and many of them are quite good. Seeing young artists like Van Sciver plugging away in so many different places makes it obvious as to why he’s improved so much in just a few years. They’re figuring their craft out in public, and doing it on the cheap.

  38. Pingback: July Diary, Day one « Lucky

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>