While most think of Everett Rand & Gioia Palmieri's zine Mineshaft as a haven for cartoonists from the American underground and early alt-comics eras, Rand has been publishing work from younger and European cartoonists for quite some time. Ed Piskor, Noah Van Sciver, and Nina Bunjevac are some prominent examples of Mineshaft's young talent. However, it wasn't until he self-published the first issue of The Nincompoop that German cartoonist and Mineshaft contributor Christoph Mueller had a comic that was widely available in English. Mueller's skill as a draftsman and illustrator is top-notch; he's one of those cartoonists who can draw in a naturalistic style and can draw anything convincingly. His hatching adds intensity to every page, his palette is tasteful and restrained, and he can go cartoony or psychedelic as the story demands. The sheer virtuosity of Mueller's drawings is remarkable.
Thankfully, Mueller brings a lot more to the table than just drawing skill. Mueller has noted that his two biggest influences are Robert Crumb and Chris Ware. The hatching and density of Mueller's drawings are straight from Crumb, while his design, color sense, and lettering style come from Ware. That said, his actual stories owe little to either cartoonist and reflect an artist who above all else is a humorist. That's especially true in "Freezing To Death In Durham", which is the best comics convention story I've ever read. Mueller flew out to my city for the inaugural Zine Machine festival, along with a number of other Mineshaft contributors, and the way he managed to describe true events while adding layers of what I can only call Gonzo cartooning had me laughing as hard as I have at any comic this year.
Mueller depicts himself as a sort of bemused observer of outsized personalities, a figure who mostly lives in his own head but is often moved by the beauty he sees in the world. His opposite number in the story is Aaron Lange, the excellent smut-peddling cartoonist from Philadelphia whose own skill with a pen is a match for Mueller. Looking over Lange's work (a salacious sample of which is included in the story), Mueller muses, "This is either pure smut, or... or... art," with a shadowy pall cast over his face. Scenes of eating absurd foods like "The Pile" (a heap of meat and cheese that's a favorite at a local restaurant) turn into hilarious, swirling, and drunken accounts of late-night wisdom.
Mueller's story is so winning because of his careful focus on details: weird sculptures, odd buildings, Lange's obsession with his own Germanic heritage, strange food, and stories both scatological & philosophical. The way he layered details to give the reader a sense of time and place (I've never read a better story involving Durham) allowed him to go completely off the rails at the end in a sci-fi/action/conspiracy shoot-out sequence. What's remarkable about that wacky ending is that Mueller never once broke character nor winked to the audience, returning to the same sort of musings that he began the story with.
"A Cosmic Game Of Cards" sees Mueller once again start from the specific and particular only to emerge into the psychedelic and eschatological. What begins as a Maltese Falcon-style conflict of outsized personalities competing to get to a particular, ultra-high stakes card game only grows weirder and weirder. Mueller's lovingly detailed drawings of steamships and airships demonstrates his total commitment to each story beat as a whole in its own, as well as part of something greater. As sinister and weird as one might suspect the card game will become, Mueller goes way over the top once again, providing an ending not unlike an E.C. comic.
"The Horror Of Me" is the obligatory self-loathing autobio comic a la Crumb or Ivan Brunetti, with a few twists. Mueller spends a few pages actually dissecting his own germ-phobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and overall anxiety before his partner starts ripping his theories to shreds, including Mueller's insistence that he might be autistic. Mueller then goes in an entirely unexpected direction as he starts fantasizing not about sex but about being a planet that wipes out every living thing on it. It's a great gag that is made better because of his skill in depicting it, especially the demented, cute creatures that inhabited it. Mueller's fantasy continues to go downhill from there into a spiral of self-recriminations, but he's the rare self-deprecatory autobio cartoonist who has a sense of humor about that old trope.
While most of these sorts of stories tend to focus strictly on the id, being transgressive & shocking and the conflation of that kind of expression with good storytelling, Mueller avoids those masturbatory and self-indulgent tropes by acknowledging them and then taking a sharp right turn away from them. Mueller always has his eyes on the punchline and entertaining the audience above all else, and he understands that subverting reader expectations is a reliable device for keeping both him and his audience interested and surprised. He subverts his "realistic" drawing style with absurd events. He both respects and diverges from classic EC-style storytelling. Even his most interior comics are done with an audience in mind. In all cases, it's his own unique voice that informs each story, the voice of an observer with a keen eye, a dark but rollicking sense of humor and a surprising amount of empathy for both himself and others.