Small Press Spotlight

Conundrum Press

Based in Nova Scotia, Andy Brown's Conundrum Press has quietly become a major force in alt-comics publishing. Like Drawn & Quarterly, the focus is on Canadian cartoonists, publishing work from artists that D&Q has published in the past while introducing readers to many more. Conundrum is the home of recent work by David Collier, Michel Rabagliati, Pascal Gerard, Shary Boyle, and Jillian Tamaki. The publisher has also released work by younger artists like Shannon Gerard and Britt Wilson as well as translating work originally published in French by an assortment of Quebec underground cartoonists.  Suffice it to say, Conundrum's publishing strategy doesn't conform to a particular aesthetic, preferring instead to celebrate the diversity of offerings from Canada's cartoonists. It's a little rougher around the edges than D&Q but offers some books that are more conventional than Toronto's Koyama Press.

For example, Dave Lapp's People Around Here is an example of slice-of-life, quotidian reportage, where every vignette is something that Lapp either witnesses, overhears or participates in. Lapp has an ear for the quirky, the gross, the crazy and the desperate in his city of Toronto. Just when these short takes start to wear out their welcome, Lapp switches gears and starts to do longer stories and narratives based on his own experiences and conversations. It's an interesting way to do a diary or autobio strip, because the reader gets a sense of Lapp's life as he hangs out with his friends in diners and teaches art to children. Interestingly, we gain a greater insight into his personality not through these personal strips, but rather through the observations he chooses to record. What he finds interesting is revealing in its own way, and it's clear that he has a certain degree of sympathy for those who choose to express their alienation in public. Just as his narratives are straightforward, so to is his line expressive but utilitarian. His naturalism is somewhere between David Collier and Chester Brown (who pops up in a couple of stories in conversation with Lapp), combining Collier's depiction of the environment and Brown's cartoony faces.

Nina Bunjevac's Heartless takes a completely different and far more intense visual approach. Born in what was then Yugoslavia (and is now Serbia), she's lived in Canada most of her life, but her country of origin still has an impact on her career. Her drawing chops are stunning, yet she's no mere illustrator, as she breathes life into her characters as they are the vessels of her bawdy but bone-dry and pitch-black sense of humor. When one's father was the leader of an anti-government group and dies in an explosion possibly engineered by Tito's Yugoslavian government, it's easy to see how one's sense of humor can become that dark. This is reflected in the brilliant "August 1977", an illustration of her mother's letter to her father after she left him because she feared his actions would lead to his death as well as a statement by Bunjevac herself, rejecting his beliefs and the concept of patriotism.

Bunjevac's style can be described as a cross between Drew Friedman's early, pointillist work, Kim Deitch's intensely cartoony drawings that immerse the reader in his stories, and Phoebe Gloeckner's hyper-realism that dips deeply into the realm of the strange and terrible. The atmosphere in her stories is relentlessly dark (foreword writer Jay Lynch notes that she draws from French New Wave and Yugoslavian Black Wave films for the atmosphere in her comics), but this is in service to moments of grim humor rather than hard-boiled story tropes. In "Opportunity Presents Itself" and "The Real Deal", Bunjevac subverts the myth of the immigrant finding happiness in America and O.Henry style-twist storytelling with protagonists whose initial naivety is punished and presented with world-weary lessons. In the latter story, images like the desperate woman trying to get her husband's attention by showing up in lingerie, exposing her breasts, and carrying a tray with a frosty mug of beer are absolutely hilarious show-stoppers, especially when juxtaposed with her straight-ahead, soapy narration.

The gem of this collection is the suite of stories called "Bitter Tears of Zorka Petrovic", the most Deitch-like of the stories in the book. The titular protagonist is an anthropomorphic cat desperate to get in contact with a male stripper with whom she has a brief but powerful sexual experience, only to be thwarted by a lonely trans woman who's at the end of her rope and her sanity. Zorka becomes increasingly desperate in her attempts to find him, especially when she realizes that she's pregnant with his child in a scene where her breasts start to swell and pop out of her dress--all four rows of them. From there, the story gets even darker, but Bunjevac has a way of adding humor to the darkest of situations, much like Gloeckner. To date, most of her work has been seen in the pages of the superb underground zine Mineshaft, but I'm hoping that this book brings her the recognition she deserves.

2D Cloud

Raighne Hogan and Justin Skarhus of 2D Cloud have been publishing some fascinating, challenging comics that are ambitious both in terms of narrative and formal properties for over five years. Their flagship anthology, Good Minnesotan, has showcased the work of a number of artists in the midwest, many of whom are graduates of MCAD (Minneapolis College of Art & Design). There's a raw quality in a number of the artists Hogan publishes and a willingness to confront our darker natures. At the same time, Hogan also displays an almost child-like sense of humor and delight in some of his publishing choices.

Take Prizon Food Part 1 and Part 2, for instance. These full-color oddities drawn in an 8-bit style are pretty much non sequitur-as-narrative for those not already familiar with the Party Food characters (which I was not). The artists, Joseph Gillette & Eric Schuster, follow the story of an ape-man on an island, his talking pet pig, the aliens that abduct and torture him, and the god-like being who urges his brother to help him. It's silly and fun to look at, thanks to its deliberate crudeness evoking a certain kind of nostalgia for early computer games and the way they overcame their limited graphics through sheer inventiveness.

Still within 2D Cloud's recent dip into genre fiction but coming from a completely different angle is Vincent "King Mini" Stall's Things You Carry. Stall's work here reminds me a lot of Brian Ralph's post-apocalyptic comics like Daybreak and Climbing Out in that they involve solitary, silent figures exploring an environment filed with rubble and decay. In this story, a humanoid but entirely hooded figure leaves its bunker, navigates a strange and somewhat dangerous environment, and arrives in a structure where someone wearing an astronaut suit is waiting for them. Upon meeting another traveler, the hooded figure happens upon what looks like an elaborate tomb for its people, which then has the effect of creating a chain reaction after it disappears. I enjoyed the enigmatic nature of the narrative as much as I enjoyed the clarity of Stall's narrative and line.

2D Cloud's most interesting new release is Arthur Turnkey Vol. I, by Toby Jones and Alex Horab. Jones is a promising cartoonist currently working on the very funny cartoon, The Regular Show. Starting his comics career doing hilarious autobio work, he's combined that slice-of-life storytelling instinct with his day job's bizarre adventure stories to create a narrative about a nebbishy seventh grader who accidentally finds a way into another dimension when he sneezes in a near-death situation. That dimension is that of the soul or true identity of everyone on the planet. When he survives a gladiatorial challenge on the soul planet, it has a positive effect on the real world. When he returns back to the soul world, he's given more responsibility than he's bargained for. This is a crisply-paced, cleverly drawn, and consistently funny comic. The smallest details, like never seeing Arthur's parents other than through their omnipresent post-it notes that they leave for him, add a level of quirk that's charming and amusing.

Alternative Comics

As has been reported in a few places, Marc Arsenault (of the Wow Cool shop) has taken over defunct publisher Alternative Comics from Geoff Mason. That includes publishing new comics, finding homes for projects that were in limbo elsewhere, and distributing Alternative's considerable backstock. There was a point a decade or so ago when Alternative had the most exciting table at SPX, publishing the first collection of Gabrielle Bell's comics (When I'm Old), Dash Shaw's excellent and overlooked The Mother's Mouth, Nick Bertozzi's breakthrough series Rubber Necker, and Brandon Graham's first big collection, Escalator, among many other books. Mason also distributed a number of Xeric Grant winning comics and generally did a lot to help the generation of cartoonists that's now established and in their thirties get off the ground. During a period when Fantagraphics wasn't signing many young cartoonists, Alternative was an important publishing resource for many.

Arsenault is distributing the fourth issue of Ted May's hugely satisfying Injury Comics, which got its funding through Kickstarter. Hopefully, this means May will be able to publish future issues directly through Alternative, which has traditionally mixed publishing comic books and graphic novels. This issue of Injury is a pretty good introduction for new readers, because while the characters all carry over from previous issues, most of the action here is fairly self-contained. "A Birdsong Shatters The Still" is yet another story based on Jeff Wilson's true experiences; he co-wrote it with May, who drew it. I'm not sure I've seen a more painfully funny or true account of heavy metal high school burn-out types than in Wilson's stories, especially since May's art is loaded with images that are hilarious because the characters are so stone-faced and serious. This story is about a bunch of Iron Maiden fans (the phenomenon of seeing a bunch of dudes all wearing the same concert t-shirt in school is one I remember well) who get high before they have to serve detention. Wilson and May get the details of the cafeteria detention just right, down to the kids who are bored and try to stir things up and the kids who just want to get out of there. Capping the story off with some of the kids trying to play their Maiden record backward was a perfect topper of a gag.

The second story, "Blades of Grass", is drawn by Mike Reddy and written by May. Reddy's scratchy line is a nice counter to May's smoother art, and quite fitting for the latest in a series of weird adventure stories starring Beast Biplane. (He's a beast who rides a biplane, obviously.) This story is a post-party, post-hangover aftermath hang-out story that nonetheless introduces some unsavory characters and some uncertain events. If May's stories with Wilson are funny because the characters are so deadly serious, his work with Reddy crackles because it mixes the energy of a Jack Kirby comic with the loose vibe of a Jaime Hernandez book.

Arsenault has an aggressive publishing schedule in the works, but he seems well-organized and in a position to both front the money for publishing as well as get the books out to stores and through Diamond. He will be performing a public service by publishing a new issue of The Magic Whistle (#12) by Sam Henderson, one of the funniest people in comics. Next spring, he will also be publishing Henderson's excellent collection of silent Nick Magazine cartoons, Scene But Not Heard. Originally slated to be published by Top Shelf, they backed out and left Henderson scrambling for a new publisher for a number of months. Also slated to be released next spring are Steven Cerio's Sunbeam on the Astronaut and a new collection of hyper-realistic Karl Stevens' Failure strips from the Boston Phoenix. I'm hoping that Arsenault can provide a base for some cartoonists who haven't been able to find a steady publishing home over the past decade and spur them on to new-found productivity.