I hadn’t read š! in quite a while so I was excited to receive this 37th edition. Every issue has a theme such as “Female Secrets” or “Misery” and this special “Down Down Under” edition, guest-edited by Michael Fikaris, features—you guessed it—Australian cartoonists. I always enjoy anthologies showcasing cartoonists of specific countries (several past issues of š! have been devoted to artists from Portgual, Japan, and Finland), and this one did not fail to deliver. It’s well-curated and wide-ranging in scope, with content that includes character pieces, autobio, socio-political observations, journalistic probes, abstract musings, plus doses of the just plain bizarre. Everything you want!
In his editorial, Fikaris, who runs a comics and zine emporium in Melbourne called the Silent Army Storeroom, states that this issue is meant neither as a timeline nor a “who’s who” collection, but rather an introduction to some of the “weird and independent” cartoonists from the Storeroom. He paints a picture of these artists as doing the work primarily for the joy of creating sequential art, making friends, and building community, not necessarily for financial remuneration. As a cartoonist, I strongly identify (but getting paid is very nice indeed). The resulting collection feels like a high-end zine, crafted with care and energy.
Here are some highlights:
Tommi Parrish, an Ignatz Award multiple nominee and a winner of the Lambda Literary Award for his graphic novel The Lie and How We Told it, provides the opening attraction. “Sleep,” rendered in elegant penciled line drawings, is a vivid and ultimately tender snapshot of a day in the life of a single parent and her young and unruly son, Justin. The vignette opens with Mum rushing in late to pick up a very unhappy Justin from Aftercare. Things go mostly downhill from there, with Justin acting out and Mum attempting to cope. Parrish’s characters are rendered with large, bulky bodies and undersized heads, which somehow lends them an extra layer of humanity and awkward poignancy, while also blurring gender binaries. Mum appears to identify as female, but readers familiar with Parrish’s work know to assume nothing in this regard. This is a lovely, nuanced character piece that I could see expanding into a longer narrative.
Simon Hanselmann contributes “Twilight Zone” starring his popular Meg and Mogg cast of characters. This time around, the perennial victim Owl wakes up to a world in which everyone speaks a nightmarish parody of Australian slang, generously peppered with profanity and hostility (sample:“Fucken rag off, ya dag!”). As usual, things don’t go well for Owl. This little adventure is rendered in simple black ink instead of Hanselmann’s usual bright color palette.
Cover illustrator HTML Flowers, a popular artist with some U.S. recognition (his bio states that he was born in the U.S. but relocated to Melbourne because the American healthcare system sucks so much), contributes “Self Care,” which I assume is at least semi-autobiographical. In it, a young man named Little is asked to speak at his chronic-illness support group and proceeds to bitterly attack the group and its facilitator: “You’re just here to trade notes on how to seem less worthless to people who fucking hate us.” Flowers’ visuals, presented in bright, practically day-glow colors, work in direct contrast to the blunt, no-nonsense anger of his story.
Sam Wallman, a talented comics journalist whose work can be read stateside on The Nib, contributes “Pine Gap,” an exposé of the titular U.S. satellite spy base. Pine Gap was set up in the remote desert in the middle of Australia in the 1960’s in an effort to “suck information from the sky & distribute it to the U.S. government.” Most Australians “have never heard of Pine Gap & America wouldn’t mind keeping it that way.” He points out the terrible things that the U.S. has subsequently done with the information gleaned from Pine Gap, including interfering in scores of elections in other countries as well as locating individuals deemed enemies and targeting them to be killed by drone strikes. Even more damning, he reveals Australia’s direct complicity in these actions. It’s a sobering piece.
Other politically-oriented stories include an untitled piece by Leigh Rigozzi who, in just seven pages, cleverly and concisely visualizes the ways in which humankind harms the planet.
In true š! tradition, there are also pieces favoring mood over straight narrative. Haein Kim contributes an effective little wordless study of a distraught woman who appears to be in the grip of intense feelings of isolation, while Evie Cahir’s gorgeous untitled piece features five pages of meditative paintings that progress from depicting a woman waking up from a dream state to the world just outside her window, and beyond. Tim Danko also uses very little text in his collage of frenetic imagery called “I Don’t Want to Throw This Away…I Just Want to Empty It.” It’s an effective expression of rage, but whether that rage is directed inward or outward is open to interpretation.
Another cartoonist with a poetic bent is Marc Pearson. In “Boticelli Person” he introduces us to a bedraggled looking fellow on stage who is monologuing existentially about trying to connect and make sense of things. He receives a lukewarm audience response, suggesting further alienation. Pearson illustrates the performer’s imaginative thoughts, which take us from a view of Earth from space to deep below its surface. This is is a lovely, poignant piece.
Meanwhile, artists like Ashley Ronning and Emma Jensen offer up crisp miniature slices-of-life about battling winter blues and overwhelming feelings. Bailey Sharp’s “Me and My Friends” introduces us to her college coterie of artists, outsiders who stick together, no matter what. Sharp’s highly stylized visuals make everything pop. Michael Fikaris’ “Message to a Younger Self” offers hard-learned wisdom not only to himself but to other cartoonists as well. He opens with “Trust in doubt.” (Write that down, cartoonists!)
As ever, regular š! readers are treated to lovely production values (nice print job on quality paper), as well as another of Swiss artist Lü Q’s adorably silly little one-pagers. Lü Q has appeared in nearly every issue, no matter what the theme, a tradition I approve of wholeheartedly.
In sum, this is a very well-crafted effort that successfully completes its mission of exposing Australian comics creators to a wider audience and linking them to the global cartooning network. I look forward to reading more from these creators and hope š! will continue to produce as many country-specific compendiums as possible. It was recently announced that issues 34-37 garnered š! an Eisner award nomination for Best Anthology. Perhaps this will further incentivize readers to pick up on what many of us have known for several years: š! is a uniquely beautiful, challenging, and altogether essential comics resource. I advise to act accordingly.