Rough House is an anthology out of Austin, one of the most important birthplaces of underground comics. That tradition, started with the likes of Jack Jackson and continued with Chris Ware, has now been picked up by a younger generation. Printed on a Risograph, this is anything-goes cartooning that draws from a variety of contemporary influences and comics movements. Not all the pieces are in color, and some of them use up to three different colors. There’s not a coherent enough group aesthetic to see this anthology as anything more than a collection of stories by like-minded folks. Some of them are in the Fort Thunder mark-making school. Others seem directly influenced by underground comics. Others owe a debt to diarists and personal zine makers. Still others doodle in the style of Michael DeForge or the Marc Bell-copped Adventure Time aesthetic. This is one reason why I liked this anthology and deemed it worthy of close examination: Rough House represents an excellent overall snapshot of what an alt-comics anthology looks like in this age, especially with regard to the level of attention paid to production values and varying styles. You could hand this to a reader and they would quickly understand what alt-comics look like in 2015.
In the first volume, there are a few mark-making comics. There’s a William Cardini strip about an anticlimactic cosmic battle that owes as much to Jack Kirby as it does Mat Brinkman. There’s Sophie Roach’s series of shapes that swirl into and out of each other, often with panels that are sideways triangles. There are plenty of transgressive anecdotes, like Aaron Whitaker’s EC Comics parody about a couple of hipsters looking for a food truck that turns out to be a dumpster, Connor Shea’s explicit and scatological story about a guy in a toilet stall who overhears a murder, and Douglas Pollard’s funny story about a man with a filthy house who’s hounded by child protection services. There is also skewed horror, such as Gillian Rhodes’ scratched-out strip about a man getting cats for hilarious but horrible reasons, Brendan Kiefer’s bizarre strip about a spoons player who uses items birthed from a horrific rape, and Blake Bohls’ story about a woman walking after a cat toward a mysterious house.
There are quieter, more sensitive moments as well. Katie Rose Pipkin’s story about a boy with a sun for a head follows through a number of romantic tropes, all cleverly rearranged. The use of scratched-out ink of various colors is especially effective in getting at the story’s underlying emotional content. Tyler Suder’s strip about the element argon being the cause of all aggression and insecurity, which briefly creates world peace until the animals take over. Baylor Estes’ story about mythological figures living together in a house and holding a party anchors the book, giving it a funny, long entry that bridges fantasy and slice-of-life genres with a sharp wit and expressive character design.
The second volume goes a little further afield in getting contributors, such as Austrian Nicolas Mahler, Seattle resident James The Stanton, and a reprint from veteran Texan cartoonist Mack White. White’s piece about Alexander the False Prophet is typical of the great artist: filled with strange anecdotes and impeccably clean pencil drawings. Stanton’s piece straddles the absurd and the grotesque, as he draws the Pink Panther character dealing with puke at a bus stop. The brightness of the pink only heightens the grotesque quality of the story. The distorted anatomy of Yuwei Gong’s “The Fly” similarly fits into this grotesque category, though without the irony-inducing cultural references that Stanton spins.
This volume has more silly content, on the whole. Doug Pollard’s monkey roommates strip mixes grotesque art with a hacky concept, while Tyler Suder’s story about Bigfoot is equally farcical. Connor Shea’s straight-faced approach makes his story about pizza delivery men having gang-style wars hilariously effective, up to and including a “memorial pizza” at the end. James Roo’s about a spaceman punching death in the face reminds me a bit of the sort of thing that Ryan Cecil Smith likes to do in his space opera comics.
More subdued and successful strips include Kayla E’s autobiographical strip about body image (that recalls Aline Kominsky-Crumb) and Melinda Tracey Boyce’s graveyard shift waitressing strip (that recalls Vanessa Davis). Colin Zelinski’s update on the Zeus-Leda myth is done in a densely rendered style that belies the looseness of the story and characterization, taking a cue from the sort of thing that Anders Nilsen does in his own mythological stories. Victoria Grace Elliott’s elegant story using bugs as an extended visual metaphor for insanity is the most affecting in the book, while Brandon Kiefer’s multi-level camera pullback about a radio DJ who has a heart attack on air is the cleverest story. The former story uses its one color (deep red) to emphasize the dysfunction of the characters, while Kiefer’s story uses soft and subdued blues and pinks to give this a feel of a strip and artist out of time.
While not every story in Rough House is top notch, it’s clear that most of the creators were trying to bring their “A” game to the wider public. It’s also clear that while Austin is still fertile ground for cartoonists, this anthology didn’t have anything that was particular to the area in terms of influences or aesthetics. This speaks to the wider sphere of influence the internet has brought to cartooning and comics; this isn’t a small group of local artists working with a narrow range of cultural references. Editorial intent is of ever-increasing importance with regard to anthologies, and something that’s mostly absent here. The editor here instead trusted the talents of the contributors to form an anthology that’s mostly coherent in terms of its artists being similar in terms of their aesthetic goals, and that has as much to do with alt-comics as a whole at the moment as it does with being a cartoonist from Texas.