When I'm bored at work, which happens enough to have caused my return to writing comics criticism after years away from the field, one of my favorite things to do is pull up and peruse all my liked posts on Twitter or Instagram. It feels like this should be a foregone conclusion, and maybe it is, but I sure don't see it discussed very much: memes represent an evolution of the comics medium. The basic formula of making humor out of an incongruous juxtaposition of a visual statement with another element, be it visual or textual, is functionally identical to the soil of political and gag cartoons that the comics form sprouted from. This dude is a comic. So is this thing, and this. That one you just favorited probably is too!
I think a big part of what's driving the amount of discussion around Olivia Jaimes's rendition of Nancy is the way it uses the extreme short form and funny technology gags to spotlight just how strong the connective tissue between traditional comics and memes really is. It'd sure be nice to have a few more things like that one though! For a medium situated in such close proximity to what's arguably become the lingua franca of 21st century discourse (no shit!), the bulk of comics seems rather uninterested in exploring meme mechanics or considering ways to try and draft off the insane momentum of the new art form that's moved in next door.
Enter Julian Glander and 3D Sweeties! On the most formal level, Glander's book has no more in common with memes than anything else that comes out new on Wednesday: his pages are organized into gridded sequences of square boxes featuring pictures of characters doing and saying things. But the online-obsessed, non-sequitur, punchline-implying more than punchline-delivering things they do and say feel a lot more like the kind of igs your friends show you to break up a quiet moment at the bar than they do the funny papers, and the visual world they inhabit is more exotic still. Glander's digital drawings are both incredibly weird and incredibly beautiful, and they're definitely the best part of this book. 3D Sweeties' computerized characters wander far afield indeed from the human or even traditional anthropomorphism: a sentient cup ("Cuppy", duh) is the closest thing the book has to a star, and most of its best sequences follow the travails and shit-talk of shiny, slimy forms with blasé attitudes. More notable still are Glander's neon color schemes, which look drowned in Kool Aid and then dried out in a desert of Fun Dip (thinking about it, Kool Aid Man is probably the comics character most similar to this book's cast).
Glander's eye-widening colors and spotless, perfectly modeled surfaces are the shimmering pop-music hook his work throws out at readers, big and Mainstream feeling and difficult to resist; but that same astringent cleanliness also carries a very strong sense of melancholy, claustrophobia, the void. A few people noticed this strikingly designed book's puffy plastic cover and asked if they could take a look while I was reading it, with rapture and revulsion running pretty even as reactions. This is cartooning as confrontational in its way as Gary Panter or King Terry, work that requires an imposing level of craft to look as dumb as it does. Some of Paper Rad's lusher work hinted at the kind of squeaky-clean psychedelia Glander deals in, and one suspects Kyle Baker might have gotten there if he'd gone whole hog with his digital modeling; but this is unique, highly accomplished comics art that stands on its own.
Glander's writing, perhaps inevitably, feels vaguer. It isn't just that the development of a storytelling style to match such a distinct visual profile would be a tough ask - it's that we all see tons of these kind of gags every day littering the corners of our social media feeds. The first half of 3D Sweeties is frankly unsatisfying as "content". Glander gets to his jokes at a pace that, though fast for comics, feels meandering for the same kind of referential sarcasm that we're used to seeing memes deliver in a single image. What's missing from these one-to-four page quick hits, what comics deliver, is development - if not necessarily of characters than of the gags themselves, using the form's way of unrolling itself to build a joke up to higher heights than one lone picture can attain. As meme-informed humor these are weak sauce, nowhere near as funny an examination of tropes as stuff like Saltina Marie, and without much added depth.
Glander gets closer to a rhythm with a roughly comic book-length suite of short gags called "Purple Slime Molds" midway through the book, setting some of his topical impulses aside for gross-outs and bizarre jabs centered around his blobby characters' yucky physicality. Better still is "Susan Something", the book's long closing sequence, which irons Glander's cataloging of millennial irritations into an extended look at the life of a livestreamer who discovers a fully immersive digital world and feels unexpected qualms about abandoning real life completely. The closest thing 3D Sweeties has to a statement of purpose can be found here. "Do I spend my whole life in games because I crave an interpersonal connection but find human contact repulsive?" Susan asks a massive virtual image of Cuppy that comes close enough to serving as a manifestation of the divine. The answer offered is predictably, hilariously unsatisfying, but what sticks is the question - especially in a book formatted to look as much like one of its own characters as possible and written by an author who describes his life as "just in front of a computer all day making little pastel friends for myself". Technicolor waters run deep.