At the end of the 1990s, the alternative comics pamphlet began its descent from the dominant model of distribution to a nearly extinct object. With a decline in the overall number of comics shops and the rise of distribution in book stores, the so-called "graphic novel" became a more prominent object for sales, which had a significant impact on the kinds of books publishers were interested in taking on. However, the market has changed again in unexpected ways. With the rise of the small-press comics-show circuit, it's become imperative for artists and publishers to have as much new material as possible on a show-to-show basis. At the same time, independent printers have become more amenable to printing comics at more affordable prices, making it possible for small-press publishers and even individuals to publish pamphlet comic books once again.
It's only fitting that a veteran of the '80s black & white publishing boom should put out another standard-issue comic book in 2014. Steve Lafler, known primarily for his magazine-sized, surreal quasi-autobio series Dog Boy and his psychedelic anthropomorphic jazz series Bughouse, is back again. He's kept his hand in comics, mostly by self-publishing, since Top Shelf published the final Bughouse volume. In many of his comics, Lafler has explored the relationship between life and death, of art and commerce and of purpose and aimlessness. The shifting nature of identity is another regular theme, especially plays on superhero costumes in real life being a form of drag. All of these themes are explored in his new series with Alternative Comics (themselves back from a along hiatus with a new publisher in Marc Arsenault), Death In Oaxaca.
The title refers not to murder, but rather to the presence of Death himself as part of the narrative. In this case, he appears in the dreams of Lafler's stand-in character Rex. Rex is a cartoonist who's just moved to Oaxaca with his family (wife Gertie and son Myles), and Rex also happens to play a little guitar. In real life, Lafler moved to Oaxaca with his family as well, and is riffing off the town and merging it with some themes explored in the Bughouse book Baja. The book has a remarkably languid pace, as Lafler's bold and blocky line is initially dedicated to introducing the reader to the sights, sounds and tastes of Oaxaca. Little by little, Lafler cues us in on the weirdness.
or example, Gertie decides to start wearing a luchadora outfit in public in order to fight crime, which results in a wonderfully ridiculous scene. Lafler's "superheroes" are always regular people with some gear who wear dumb outfits, and I look forward to exploring more of Gertie's motivations. We later learn that Rex and Gertie's landlord is a vampire who feasts upon the blood of chickens. Even weirder, Death appears in Rex's dreams for impromptu jam sessions, with Rex on guitar and Death playing blues harp. When Death informs Rex that he's lived in Oaxaca before, he's shown a vision of being a baby and seeing pyramids outside his window--and a younger version of his vampire landlord as his father!
Really, this comic is just an excuse for Lafler to throw in everything he thinks is fun into a single storyline. Unlike the frequently incoherent psychedelia of Dog Boy, however, Lafler makes sure everything is wrapped up in a slice-of-life narrative, grounding it in characters who have some weight and direction of their own, rather than simply acting as the results of tripped-out weirdness. Visually, this comic is a feast of details that never blur into too much information. Lafler stripped down his visual style considerably with Bughouse and went surprisingly spare at times. Here, the characters dominate each page, but beautiful details are included from homes and gardens, as well as the local flavor of the city itself. This comic has the assured quality of a veteran who knows not to over-render his pages and knows just how to balance the design elements of each page. At the same time, it has the giddy energy of a newcomer who can't wait to unleash his crazy ideas upon his readership. This is precisely the sort of comic that can become a huge convention hit, with readers eagerly awaiting the next issue.