To read Jenny Zervakis’ The Complete Strange Growths: 1991-1997, the first book published by John Porcellino’s Spit and a Half comics distribution outfit, is to take a welcome step back to the Golden Age of Zines. Long before the advent of such things as social media, GIFs, hashtags, and ebooks, cartoonists and zine-makers like Zervakis created, communicated, and collaborated with kindred spirits through the magic of print media via regular old postal mail. The Complete Strange Growths is a great addition to the small list of archival books devoted to preserving classic titles of this crucial era, including Porcellino’s own King-Cat Classix (D+Q, 2007), The Complete Deep Girl by Ariel Bordeaux (Paper Rocket Minicomics, 2013), and Fantastic Plotte by Julie Doucet (L’Oie de Cravan, 2013).
Strange Growths has been credited as a groundbreaking comics zine for its quietude, and focus on the quotidian—or, as Tom Hart’s back cover blurb aptly states, “on thought and mood.” It’s easy to see why John P. has acknowledged Zervakis as a major influence on his work, and fitting that he has published this collection. Zervakis’ comics record her experiences, memories and contemplations of the moment with an aesthetic that is personable yet detached, intelligent but fun-loving, and observant of small details while never losing focus on their larger significance, and never sinking into preciousness or sentimentality.
The thirteen issues are presented chronologically in their original form, cover to cover— the perfect way to chart Zervakis’ artistic trajectory. There is also a section in the back devoted to comics Zervakis drew for various anthologies (though none of the anthology titles or dates of publication are given). The comics and stories run the gamut of subject matter: light and dark, amusing and tragic, and everywhere in between, giving the reader a taste of Zervakis’ divergent experiences, hopes, regrets, whimsies and dreams.
One uncomfortably effective strip presents the first half of its title at the top of the page: “Sometimes You Don’t Know Until It’s Too Late”. Then Zervakis shows us a trio of situations in which she was presented with an opportunity to aid a worthy cause or help an animal in trouble…but opted not to. At the bottom of the page is the second half of the title: “You’ve Gone and Broke Your Own Heart”. We’ve all experienced this sort of “shoulda coulda” guilt and it’s excruciating.
The evocative “Dancing Beautiful” depicts Zervakis out one night at a club, listening to different bands, which triggers a childhood memory of dancing with her sister and cousin to love songs, but “not knowing what love was.” The panel of the girls dancing in their underwear is one of Zervakis’ loveliest, most indelible images.
Another brief story, “Time Travel”, also presents a memory inside another memory. Other stories, such as “Silent Passenger” and “Messages”, are melancholic tone-poems, capturing and recording moments to reflect upon and perhaps feel comforted by. Still another variety of Strange Growth‘s strips are those like “Neanderthal Romance” and “Bus Driver Philosophy”, which record, in humorous Harvey Pekar-esque fashion, odd encounters with strangers. Like Pekar, Zervakis is genuinely interested in the quirks of other people; she displays generosity even to the more outwardly annoying of them–certainly crediting them with at least giving her a good anecdote to pass along to readers.
Like so many other zine-based cartoonists from the ’90s (and today), Zervakis’ work is instinctual, spontaneous and personal—the antithesis of slick or polished. Her best drawings at times remind me of the ’40s-era children’s book illustrator Louis Slobodkin in their homey, rounded feel. Her most consistent art is usually to be found on the zine covers, in which she often depicts trees, gardens, potted plants, and other vegetation, rendering them with a wonderfully odd, fecund beauty. She evinces a deep appreciation for nature in general, whether relating anecdotes in “Gardens” or waxing poetic in “A Changing Season”.
In an excellent back-pages interview conducted by comics critic Robert Clough, Zervakis gives context to several of the stories, and to her general creative process, noting that comics are simply one conduit for her creative impulses. She states that she identifies more as a writer who draws, which sounds accurate, and as a part of the ’80s and ’90s generation of creators who mainly worked through self-publishing and distribution channels. She also confesses to having a “weird” relationship with art. The title Strange Growths feels apropos to the contents of every issue: the drawing for the table of contents in issue #1 features a face with the titles of the stories bulging from its head. “Strange growths,” indeed.
Though the comics here were created over two decades ago, there’s a timeless quality to them; they still feel fresh, evoking not nostalgia as much as an acknowledgement of the prismatic quality of life—the sheer breadth of its pitfalls and possibilities. Strange Growths was, and continues to be, something special.