San Diego Comic Con 2009: Small Press Round Up
Reich #5-6 (Sparkplug Comics): At last year’s San Diego Con, I picked up Reich #1-4 and was blown away by Elijah Brubaker’s research ability and attention to detail in his penciling. Since my LCS seems to have an ever-growing aversion to small press titles, I was excited to pick up another two issues this year and see how the story continued to unfold. It’s not an excruciating wait since Brubaker seems to be on a quarterly schedule. These two issues focus squarely on the peril (and paranoia) of the life of a real-world sexual/political activist. With his aggressive conviction of beliefs, Reich surpasses Freud (in his own mind) as an arbiter of abstract thought. He doesn’t want to be bound by societal norms, which is the way he perceives Freud to be, evidenced in a telling sequence where Freud is portrayed like a caged animal pacing back and forth. Reich wants the freedom to explore and educate, but his natural paranoia about both communists and psychoanalyst organizations out to get him is only fueled by real world suspension of freedoms by the government in the name of preserving itself. The book's link between sex and politics is really captured crisply with lines like “the public craves discipline and tyranny because everyone is so sexually repressed.” It also manages to capture the rapid pre-War decline with “Germany was the guiding light of cultural and progressive thought. Now it’s a vile, soulless place.” We’re given another rare treat in the form of a flashback to Reich’s youth which explains how an early brothel experience has helped inform his views of sex and male/female hierarchy. Brubaker’s pencils continue to astound with emotive lines, clever cross-hatching, and a unique sense of style, bringing a level of fun and engagement to a set of topics that might otherwise play boring. Grade A.
Sausage Hand (Teenage Dinosaur & Sparkplug Comics): Even though I got this book for free from Tim Goodyear, I actually don’t think I would have minded the $6 price tag. At 80 pages, it reads less like a mini-comic and more like a sprawling graphic novel. It’s dense and weighty, both physically and thematically. While there are some minor struggles with perspective (notice how the gun barrel is positioned in early panels), Andrew Smith’s book is very attractive aesthetically. The art is a mélange of styles informed by everyone from Robert Crumb and Tony Millionaire to I Will Destroy You’s Tom Neely. One of the books consistent themes is an unspoken link between sex and violence. Notice how the pig aspect-of-self erects his business only when he’s in the process of killing, or how another aspect of self does the same when accosted by the book store clerk. The events are awash in a malleable reality with surreal and skewed perspective shots that bristle with life. Sausage Hand is particularly concerned with external existential quandaries (What is my purpose? Why do I exist?) and internal turmoil with various aspects of self – Freud’s psychic apparatus of the id, ego, and superego – all competing for dominance. Smith also offers up some memorable one-liners, such as the “triune joy” of the modern consumer ethic or “you only discipline someone you care about,” which possess a worldly wisdom beyond their low-fi form. Grade A.
And Then One Day #7 (Elephant Eater): This issue of ATOD centers on conversations between autobiographical comics entrepreneur Ryan Claytor and Dr. Harry Polkinhorn, an authority on the personal essay. Claytor's autobio endeavors are... humble and self-deprecating are probably terms too strong, but possess a... healthy sense of self-awareness, which is immensely appealing. The conversation between the two weaves in and out of the differences between the personal essay and more factual autobio, but interestingly notes that the line is blurred. Polkinhorn's notion that personal writing is just veiled autobio because it still reflects the person's values and aspirations is a particularly interesting one. This idea sits nicely with Claytor's own proprietary belief in a continuum of truth and fiction. They're both profound approaches that ultimately question what an author's goal is - conveyance of simple fact or of a more personalized ideal - perhaps "truth" is some odd blend of the two hemispheres of the brain controlling empirical absolutes and subjective emotion (that last bit is my idea, not theirs). I thought it was a revealing moment when the good natured humor of their conversation belies a generational rift: "you kids and your internet." I like Claytor's inquisitive nature balanced by his deferential treatment of someone in a position of authority or with some alternate perspective on a topic. Claytor’s art continues to grow, evident here with richer backgrounds and more variation in the line weight. As usual with Claytor’s work, it's not just about what it’s about, it's about how it’s about what it’s about. The approach, the practice, the methods are just as illuminating as the ostensible “story” or events being relayed. Like any good art, it educates the reader - Claytor actually made me look up a word. On the last page, he uses the term “pertainant.” Ultimately, my investigation was inconclusive. I'm not sure if this is a typo and he meant to letter “pertinent.” The term “pertainant” seems to be so widely used that I'm not sure if it’s actually a word or just a very common spelling error. End digression. As usual, Ryan's work is the perfect coupling of erudition and accessibility. Grade A.
The Machinist #1 (Elephant Eater): Ryan Claytor’s 24 Hour Comic is not only impressive from a pure craft standpoint, (you try making a comic in 24 hours that looks as polished and professional), but offers up meaty social commentary as well. The book examines the plight of the Detroit Auto Industry, and to a greater extent the entire American Midwest. In that sense, it's not unlike its great contemporary Skyscrapers of the Midwest, a narrative about the collapsing shards of the American Dream. The Machinist is a one-man stage play, but I got the feeling the unnamed protagonist wasn’t just monologuing or offering exposition; it felt more like an intimate conversation with God. Artistically, it doesn’t feel very rushed, which one might expect for a 24 Hour Comic, there's still plenty of details like the little bubbles and “hic” notations to emphasize the drunken rantings of the main player. It's a mix of anger and despair, and risking the loss of dignity. I say “risking” deliberately because Claytor makes a very compelling choice to have the man pick up his broken bottle and not add to the decay and squalor he sees in the crumbling building and economy around him. It's a horrible situation that somehow manages to end on a note of hope and pride. This might be one of my favorite works from Ryan Claytor for that one scene alone; it makes me want to see more work like this from him. The Machinist is timely, well done, and certainly recommended. Grade A.