“But I read it for the articles!” was the common refrain one would hear from those who either subscribed to Playboy and/or Penthouse back in the day or picked up the occasional copy from the newsstand - which rather put the people who did, in fact, read it for the articles in a tough spot, since nobody was buying their line. Fortunately, readers of Conundrum–the self-styled “Annual Magazine of the Comic Arts” that comes our way courtesy of the publisher of the same name–needn’t resort to such painfully obvious feats of intellectual contortionism in order to justify their purchase: it’s perfectly fine to really just be picking this thing up for the pictures. Specifically, for the comics.
In fact, if it weren’t already clear before from the first two volumes (and, spoiler alert, it was), the recent release of the series’ third issue is prima facie evidence that the comics are by and large the only reason to pick this magazine up, given that, with few exceptions (which we’ll arrive at in due course), the “articles” are extended promotional blurbs for extant or forthcoming Conundrum titles, usually (though not always) taking the form of “softball”-style interviews with the creators of said titles. Those of us who grew up on Marvel Age–this writer included–will probably be fine with this on both a conceptual and practical level, but let’s not be afraid to call this publication what it is: a house ad on steroids.
What will primarily be of interest, then, are the excerpted selections from those just-referenced Conundrum titles, and as a result the only fair way to judge the magazine itself is to determine whether or not publisher/editor Andy Brown has chosen snippets that will whet the appetites of prospective readers and, as a result, move his product. Fortunately, in that regard he’s done a fine job: beginning with a preview of Lynette Richards’ gorgeously-illustrated historical graphic novel Call Me Bill (the first release from Conundrum’s new YA imprint, Emanata) and continuing through with “sneak peeks” at Zoe Maeve’s July Underwater, Jonathan Dyck’s Shelterbelts, Jon Claytor’s Take The Long Way Home, Rick Trembles’ collection of his The Weakly Dispatch strips, Cole Pauls’ Kwandur, Igor Hofbauer and Jonathan Bousfield’s Crimson Quays (from the Conundrum International imprint), and a number of brief looks at a smattering of releases in the Conundrum 25 range of short story “one-shots,” which are appended by an overview of the so-called “Graphic Shorts” medium in general by Zsuzsi Gardner that’s a nicely-written introductory piece for more casual observers of the comics medium, it becomes clear for those not in the know that this is a publisher with a wide range of well-done offerings that, admittedly, tilt a bit toward the refined and understated on the whole, but nevertheless are hardly confined to a narrow set of aesthetic values or editorial sensibilities. Sure, the NPR/McSweeney’s/This American Life crowd will probably find more to their liking among Conundrum’s offerings than, say, the Zap or Weirdo crowd, but there’s a little bit of something for almost all tastes.
This present “sampler” is rounded out by a little of the good, and a little of the bad. On the good side of the ledger we have a concise and fascinating interview with artist Kiona Callihoo Ligtvoet, who provides this issue’s sublime cover and table of contents page paintings, as well as original, non-promotional comic strips by Jared Cody Wolf and Joe Ollmann, and a fairly well-articulated review of Conundrum’s Scratches #2 anthology, while on the bad we’ve got a letters page largely devoted to showing off the fact that famous cartoonists read and enjoyed the previous volume of Conundrum, and a tribute to the (sorry to use a cliché, but it definitely applies) late, great Henriette Valium authored by Marc Tessier that - well, okay, calling the tribute itself “bad” isn’t right, as it’s actually quite a good tribute, it’s just that it’s lifted (with permission, of course, but still) from this very website and certainly an original piece of writing for one of the most original cartoonists to ever draw breath would have been welcomed, especially considering that Valium was responsible for a couple of the best comics Conundrum ever published. Hell, editor Brown could very well have said some words about Valium himself, but instead he opted to re-print an extant piece of writing. To my mind, at any rate, that rings pretty effing hollow in spite of the fact that, again, Tessier’s memorial is a fine one.
Still, outside their generally solid publishing efforts, Conundrum is certainly doing some good things for the comics medium and its future in a more general sense, most notably providing an annual grant to Black and Indigenous creators, the first of which was recently afforded to Talysha Bujold-Abu, whose work is presented in the back of this magazine and looks to be distinctive and original. A little more than a single page of her comics would have been nice, but I guess I’ll hunt down more of her wares on my own, and prompting folks to do exactly that is rather the point, so - mission accomplished on that score. And purely as a point of personal privilege since I’m the one writing this thing, I have to say that I’m overjoyed to see that Conundrum is putting out new work by the woefully underappreciated Billy Mavreas, long a staple of the Montreal “indie” arts scene, but someone who remains almost depressingly unknown outside the confines of his local area. To the extent that Conundrum is able to put his work in front of more eyes via the publication of Next Time Around, they deserve our gratitude.
So, yeah - Conundrum #3 is what it is and is pretty good for what it is. But that’s not so much an “Annual Magazine of the Comic Arts” as it is an “Annual Preview of the Titles of One Comics Publisher.” Go into it with that in mind, and you’ll find a fair amount in here to like - and, of course, a fair number of books you’ll probably want to buy later.