What an odd book this is. Now I said that to a comics-reading friend not in the Kramers Ergot target market and he sarcastically replied, "Really? Those guys?" But I'm not saying it's odd among the larger world of comics. I mean, duh. Nor am I even saying it's odd within the context of Kramers Ergot. As series editor Sammy Harkham and new publisher [and this site's co-editor] Dan Nadel have been saying since the book was first announced, that this issue's smaller size, slimmer page count, reduced contributor list, and dialed-down sense of visual overload represent a break from the norm established by the anthology's seminal fourth volume was precisely the point. No, I'm saying that the book is odd even within the context laid out for the book itself, apparently from conception to publication: the brand-new "unified aesthetic space of discipline, sophistication, and quiet power." To paraphrase the Dude, "Which one's Oh, Wicked Wanda!?"
I suppose it's true that if the biggest break from a prevailing editorial vision comes in the form of comics reprinted from '70s Penthouse issues, and in an introduction provided by a punk-rock public intellectual, rather than in any of the comics created with the volume in mind, then mission mostly accomplished. But it is indeed tough to square the airbrushed antics of Ron Embleton & Frederic Mullalley's pneumatic antiheroine, or genre-hopping musician and essayist Ian Svenonius's knowingly (?) silly essay on the connection between comics and camp, with the material they bookend.
Oh, Wicked Wanda! does at least share its (surprisingly non-explicit) smuttiness with the erotic comics contributed by C.F. and Chris Cilla, its harmless and dated Nazisploitation in particular coming across like a training-wheels version of the genuine S&M kink served up by the increasingly decadent Christopher Forgues. Moreover, its airbrush colors and spherical female forms, both of which are luridly overripe, luxuriate on the slick, thick paper stock Harkham selected for the book's most vibrant material in much the same way that Robert Beatty's '70s-sci-chedelic abstractions and Takeshi Murata's trash-culture still-lifes do. And perhaps this is the point of the reprints' inclusion: Wedging them in between those brown cloth covers along with the cream of today's alt/art comics crop all but dares the reader's brain to start seeing commonalities, surely one of the great pleasures of any anthologist. But what the eye and mind invent, the material itself subverts: The strip is a shallow Kurtzman/Elder riff/rip whose unceasing double-entendres, porny puns, and half-hearted eyeball kicks (the same Chappaquiddick-referencing image of Ted Kennedy running for president while half-submerged in a body of water appears three or four times; it's like Andrew "Dice" Clay's infamous "hour...back! Get it?" routine in background-celebrity-cameo form) manage somehow to be both frantic and flat.
As for Svenonius's introductory essay, its cheeky title, "Notes on Camp, Part 2", indicates that he's in on the joke. But that joke -- a lengthy disquisition on pop art, Christianity, homosexuality, camp, CIA subversion of the mid-20th-century European high-art community, and the link between all these things and underground comics -- has basically nothing to do with actual underground comics as practiced by any of this book's contributors save possibly Johnny Ryan. It's like reading a foreword that concludes with the sentence "You'll love these cupcake recipes!" and turning the page to discover you've purchased a biography of Adlai Stevenson. What's more, the joke itself is kind of lazily executed. Every interesting idea (prehistoric society's proximity to the beasts fucking in the field and lack of leisure-time entertainment other than sexual intercourse gave rise to its many mythological hybrid monsters and gods) is offset by a dopey one (Christianity's intolerance is attributed to its worship of a god who "had no face, name, characteristics, or identity," despite the religion being entirely predicated on the idea that God incarnated Himself as a guy who worked as a carpenter that you could invite to your weddings and shit). Every funny turn of phrase ("To answer that question, we must briefly trace the history of homosexuality") is answered by a clumsy one (the essay fucking ends with "ZAP! BLAM! POW!").
So to restore the sense of focus touted by Harkham and Nadel, to tighten things up, to locate that "unified aesthetic," it's best to consider the original visual-art contributions alone. And that's where the oddest thing of all emerges: Somehow, this anthology manages to be one of the year's saddest and sexiest comics. The warm space-scapes and shape-scapes of painter Robert Beatty play us in, as it were, with a selection of images appropriately entitled "Overture"; think of the visual equivalent of the opening synth-washes on Boards of Canada's Music Has the Right to Children or Van Halen's 1984 and you've just about got it. Are they images of cosmic isolation or of sensuality? The next two contributions essentially suggest that the book is refusing to choose. Suffused with a sense of loss and wasted potential, Gary Panter's opening "Jimbo" strip sees the title character and his friends come into the possession of technological orbs the near-miraculous powers of which they squander by using them to watch their favorite movies simultaneously; the comedy goes from "buddy" to "black" in the space of the final panel. This is followed by C.F.'s kinky contribution, which challenges reader preconceptions by leaving everyone involved in a seemingly predatory, sadomasochistic teacher-student liaison happy and fulfilled; the furniture, the ingenue's doe eyes, the seducer's Thin White Duke comportment, the final images of a satisfied smoke at the end of the day, are all calibrated for maximum visual pleasure.
The rest of the collection continues to challenge the reader with disorienting alternating blasts of pain and pleasure. Kevin Huizenga offers up a cover version of a Golden Age science fiction comic by artists Bill Molno and Sal Trapani and an anonymous writer, in which a trio of emotionally or physically damaged scientist-explorers discover a hollow-earth kingdom of sorcerers who provide them with a restoration of what they've lost to which they cling despite its potentially illusory nature. Quite simply, this is the most profoundly sad comic I read all year, with Huizenga's simple and endearing cartoon figures teasing irreparable devastation out of the hoary twist-ending structure. Frequent collaborators Frank Santoro and Dash Shaw return to the gauzy, lovely cotton-candy hues of Santoro's Cold Heat, but they do so in service of a To Catch a Predator-style story of a young man enticed/entrapped over the Internet into a life-destroying rendezvous with an undercover operative posing as an underage girl; it's all cameras and boom mics trained on a man who's mounting terror and shame eventually cause him to vomit in a pretty purple gush.
For his part, though, Johnny Ryan dispenses with the pleasantries and presents the starkest and ickiest of his straightforward horror comics to date. Using an astronaut's search for his missing wife and fellow spacefarer as a kind of bait, he subjects us to hard-to-shake imagery (an S.O.S. message spelled out with used tampons on a lunar surface; a vagina-dentata orifice in the shape of a swastika) and dialogue ("Hurry...I can see his penis..." warns the mutilated wife as her husband rushes down a tunnel to save her from the unknown, massive, monstrous assailant approaching them cock-first) that recast the relationship between spouses as pathetically codependent and doomed to death and failure. See also editor Harkham's "A Husband and a Wife," which could fit right alongside Emily Carroll's nearly identically plotted webcomic "The Room" in some concept album about spouses gone monstrous but which substitutes Carroll's lush coloring with a bravura display of blood-spatter-as-black-spotting. The fauxtobiographical strip from Gabrielle Bell (her best yet of this sort, which is saying something) and Leon Sadler's loosey-goosey elves-and-insects romps are lighter in tone but no less fixated on the idea of love as something shot through with death. (Look around the altcomix landscape and you'll see a plethora of new-ish anthologies moving very much in the wake of Kramers; many of them, and many other cartoonists and comics besides, are mining much the same sex-horror vein. Kramers now feels like a "break out the good china" prestige anthology compared to the Armory Show-style upstart it was circa Summer 2003, but it's still tapped directly into the zeitgeist of the best and edgiest young cartoonists, even if it's mostly using more established talents at this point.)
There are less grim moments to be found here, though. Tim Hensley's splash-page gag comic features a performance-art-hating sniper erroneously training his rifle on a gesticulating traffic cop -- black comedy to be sure, but too silly, and too beautifully drawn in Hensley's classical style, to be anything but funny. Ben Jones offers up a shaggy-dog (get it?) joke about a caveman's triumphant self-presentation to the tribe after discovering doggy-style (get it??) sex, couched in a sci-fi comedy about a couple of dudes with giant dog heads for torsos (get it???). Relative up-and-comer Anya Davidson's "Barbarian Bitch" is as combat-driven as you'd expect from a comic with that title, but it's ultimately more about the pleasures of proficiency, the quest to possess power that doesn't stem from asserting one's superiority over others. Heck, Davidson's own cartooning is a case in point: Loose and kinetic, it bounces between multiple simultaneous story lines from panel to panel without warning, evoking Jaime Hernandez's delicious density of narrative information without aping his tightness of layout and line. Even C.F.'s defiantly sleazy story is a happy one, when you think of it; its baggage is yours, not his.
But that's where that pesky "unified aesthetic space" comes in and messes with you. Trim away the outliers from the outsiders, and the disparate halves of what you're left with can't help but be viewed in concert. This effect is embodied in Chris Cilla's "Secret Tourist," in which a visitor to a kitschy roadside attraction first reminisces about losing his virginity in a similar location, then takes advantage of the attractive tour guide's down time to have a quickie with her when (he thinks) no one's looking. The sex stuff here has real heat, an always welcome focus on the moments when the potential of desire is actualized by mutual consent into the reality of sexual pleasure. But it curdles like spoiled milk with the surprise ending, when the copulating couple is spotted by a stray kid from the tour group, who tells them to go ahead and finish, he won't tell anyone. The sexy becomes creepy, and there's a dispiriting sense that some opportunity to shake free of the ugliness, if only for a moment, has been lost. That's an odd effect for a comic to go for, but a fascinating one; a true one.