Here we are in October, the scaaaaary month. I’m personally not much of a huge fan of spooky comics other than by one particular artist who’s spent years now making superhero parodies. It boggles my mind. Anyway, did you think the column would make it two consecutive months? As Dr. Teeth sings, “Believe in me and I promise to believe in you.”
Szarlotka by Jas Hice
I think I’ve followed Jas Hice on two or three different personal art Instagrams accounts now, seen the many illustrated poems, sketchbook fragments, and drastic swerves in style and tone—I see tiny bits of Darcy and Pen Ward in the figure drawing, a little Nurse Nurse-era Skelly there, manga, X-Files—I can’t always figure it out, but it feels good. It feels lived-in. This is all to say that Hice has been an extremely enigmatic artist (but not in an annoying 2dcloud kind of way). Hice’s pages of comics, prolifically spread out all over the internet, always felt like they were part of something larger. But I’ve never encountered that something larger. Until now.
I’m not much for trigger warnings, but if you find pleasure in panic attacks, boy, this comic is for you. Sonia is a young mother who lives with her baby and roommate on what appears to be a warm and welcoming street. She meets her older neighbor Wladislaw and they exchange awkward pleasantries. And that’s where Hice starts playing with pacing and gray areas until your heart is racing. To me at first, Wlad came off as a lonely man, giving gifts (like the szarlotka, Polish apple pie), not able to grasp cultural norms in the least. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, up 'til I absolutely could not. Hice places Wladislaw’s anatomy in the gray area as well. In one panel he can look like a jolly baked potato, then in another a domineering goliath who resembles the man on those alarming “Neighborhood Watch” signs. There’s a stunning one-page spread of his eyes and fingers peering out crooked shades. His final form is a vibrating shadow representing ultimate menace. This story made me think of Fugazi’s “Suggestion” - why did I give Wlad the benefit of the doubt? This feeling of being a bystander, if not somehow complicit, is quite an accomplishment, however unsettling, for a comic to achieve. Adding to the mystery of Hice for me, this 85-pager was sent via email, appropriately raw with blue lines and smudged pencil aplenty. I hope it finds a publisher and fast.
Yearly 2023 by Andrew White
I took two poetry classes in college. The first one was nice - I would occasionally attend slightly tipsy, sit next to a big-handed girl and dig into Robert Lowell. But in the second course we had to critique each other’s poems. That meant sitting across from your classmates in intense, mandated silence as they dissected each of your authored lines. You couldn’t talk, you couldn’t defend, you couldn’t explain, and every other 20-year old was forced to make at least one comment on what you submitted that week. One student wrote a poem called “The Sturgeon,” of which I only remember the title and how it made me feel at the time. When it was my turn to respond, I was stumped. I said something like, “This feels like a great poem. This poem should be published in an anthology for readers who like these kinds of great poems. But I’m not going to be that reader.” The professor disliked my critique (and my stanzas about the plight of working food service), but the poet understood, I think. I respected him, but for all the blatant aptitude displayed, it was adversely baffling. This trip down memory lane comes courtesy of Andrew White’s sixth and latest Yearly roundup of his short works.
In this issue, there are four main stories, several bookended by a few shorter, nebulous pages. Perhaps ironically, the best one is titled “Watching Paint Peel,” told in relatively straightforward panels with a helping of all the good stuff: absurdism, witty dialogue and a darkness that’s more than creeping in along the gutters. It’s a fun read, but it really feels like White’s heart is in the other lyrical exercises, all hazy pinks and indigoes. These comics exist—they have a definite place in the larger context and history of art comics—and I have respect for White for willing them into existence. There’s an Elizabeth Strout quote included in the comic that goes, “It’s our duty to bear the burden of mystery with as much grace as we can.” White surely comes to each piece with grace, but for the mystery, there’s a limit on how much poetic opaqueness I can tolerate.
Pirate Band by Juliette Collet
“Have you read Juliette Collet? Have you seen her stuff?” That’s me. That’s what I’m always saying. And I’m happy to report that Pirate Band—released for free on her website with minimal promotion or fanfare—has put a bullet next to her spot on the list of Best Current Cartoonists in the World. Drawn in what appears to be marker and pen in nautical blues and reds, Band is a tale of two sailors ruminating over exes and heartbreak and encountering an island of hostile fangirls. But what’s most important is how it is illustrated and laid out. Each page feels like a divulgence and declaration - somehow reaching back into the past of comics and pushing forward the medium itself. I have an interview with Collet in the next print issue of the Journal and it makes me nervous that she’s transcended everything I wrote and she said just months ago, making it utterly void. She’s moving at light speed.
Before every NBA draft, pundits give each projected lottery pick a “floor” and “ceiling” comparison. That means they predict how good (or dreadful) the draftee could be, exempting all injuries and reaching their max potential, by equating them to other, more established players. My first thought in the past was that Collet’s “ceiling” could be Dirty Plotte, but the crisp 14-page Pirate Band has slightly shifted my own punditry. With all the delight and sincerity and melancholy and playfulness, but most of all confidence, I now think the “ceiling” might be Sendak. Ok, enough gushing. But have you seen her stuff?
Hacienda #2 by Dave Ortega
Here is a one-man anthology that has an old-school b&w boom feel. It’s in a standard “comic book” format and every page is divided into a rigid eight-panel grid. This issue features one story titled “The Getaway,” which is also the name of a trashy TV show, set in Nayarit, Mexico, and now in its 26th season. When one of the contestants goes missing, the producers, crew and network muckety-mucks have to make some tough decisions. Do they keep recording? Shut down production? Leak to the TMZesque press? Interspersed in all this are historical scenes of a mother and son in a violent web of deceit that stems from the branches of their family tree. Putting panels together sporadically (modern and olden, or so you think) on the same page is a neat anti-trick. There are no hazy borders or captions telling us “Before…” or “Meanwhile…” Ortega has respect for the reader to pick up on the unpredictable costumes and cadence and pays it all off at the end.
Hacienda seems ambitious in a professional way, an academic way. (For the record, Academia is the mortal enemy of “Arrivals and Departures,” and Ortega is a professor, but I won’t hold that against him, much.) Some of the background drawings are a little undercooked—seems like that might be due to the small, self-imposed grid constraints—but I abundantly admire Ortega’s character acting. His faces are my favorite part of this comic. He isn’t afraid to go big and broad with expressions and add in an interesting mug or two on each page. This avoids something I see too much of in realistic indie comics: the dreaded boring visage, or as I like to call it, “Tomine Face.” As the story continues, the remaining self-conscious contestants (“I want my wiki page to be honorable,” is an amazing line) start staging a strike and a barricade is built. There are layers of reveals on top of reveals at the end - Ortega has the reader tag along with the editors of the reality show while you simultaneously help edit a new show (and the book itself) along with them. Although I’d like to see Ortega lean into his cartooning a bit more and let his lines breathe, comic book writing doesn’t get much smarter than this.
* * *
Whew! That’s all for today. See you next month, I hope.
* * *
Questions, love letters and submissions to this column can be directed to @rjcaseywrites on Instagram.