Wednesday, October 24, 2012

First Class

Every month, my favorite piece of mail is the subscription package from Oily ComicsChuck Forsman's "micro comics" label is doing tremendous work in asserting the creative (and maybe very modest economic) viability of the old school mini-comic formatBut more significantly, as an editor and cartoonist, Forsman is showing a vision for strong stories that examine the terrain between youthful naivete and adult maturity.

This month's crop included Forsman's own The End of the Fucking World #12; Max de Radigues' Moose #12; Melissa Mendes' Lou #7; James Hindle's Close Your Eyes When You Let Go #3; and the Silver-Age-level prolific Michael DeForge's Elizabeth of Canada #1.  It's a line-up to envy, in part made possible because the 12-page, quarter sized format isn't a tremendous ask of either cartoonist or publisher, so it's possible to get work from young lions like DeForge, or committed contributors Warren Craghead, Sammy Harkham, Josh Simmons, or Dan Zettwoch.  But it's also enviable because the format restriction is producing results that require each cartoonist to develop serious strength in the economy of their storytelling.  If Oily were a monthly anthology, it probably wouldn't work, for practical and creative reasons.  But because each series stands alone, and forces a monthly deadline, the cartoonists and their stories are all developing a solid voice and polish.

This month's group cohered especially well.  The anchor pieces TEOTFW and Moose have settled into the suspenseful midsections of their narratives, where the characters and conflicts have been established, and now the action is unfolding at a captivating clip.

Moose, a painful meditation on bullying amongst children, has arrived at a moral turning point whose effectiveness is heightened by needing to wait a month to find out what happens next.  De Radigues shines for his ability to convey how children display their foundational human character in their actions and gestures.  This issue captures the sympathetic positivity of his bullied protagonist in a powerful five page sequence that displays an emotional range from adrenaline-fear to wonder to worry-fear to nervous uncertainty of consequence.  It's promising work.

Forsman's TEOTFW is a quieter, younger, and more credibly restrained version of Natural Born Killers that explores adolescent nihilism, confusion, violence, sexuality and bonding.  Forsman's characters are navigating a sequence of increasingly bad and life-destroying decisions, and as we get to know them, we discover that the environments that led them down this road had more to do with the kind of suburban neglect most American audiences can relate to than with any sensational or rebellious in-born trait.  You know from the title that this will not end well, but Forsman's pacing, characterization, and charming drawings make you anticipate each new installment.  It's a must read.  And if you haven't read the Hank Williams issue yet, you're so lucky.

Mendes' Lou displays the lives of a group of early adolescent characters in a spacious, rural American setting.  Mendes credibly observes the simultaneously sweet but self-absorbed qualities younger teenagers and pre-adolescents can show.  Her work is most fun when she's capturing how groups of kids who don't really get the world yet cope with unstructured time.  Whether she's drawing boredom on the couch, immersion in the music from the headphones, or clusters of kids making off-base conclusions about a simple adult behavior, there's a lot to enjoy in her observations.  The naive qualities of her young characters are being tested by their first-hand observation of ongoing physical violence against the presumably debt-ridden pizza shop owner who employs the eldest of the group.  Mendes is still finding her voice, and is showing steady issue-over-issue improvement in both drawing and storytelling ability.  There's some odd continuity problems between issues (for instance, a character wears a cast in one, but not the next, although not much time is indicated to have passed), but the emotional vitality of the work allows that stuff to be taken in stride.  Another beautiful element of the Oily format is that its small bite, small buy-in approach gives artists a regular platform for growth in a way that spendier and more ambitious formats don't.

Close Your Eyes When You Let Go takes us to the opposite side of the maturity spectrum from the other titles, portraying the paralyzing crush of adult responsibility and worry encountered by a new father.  Hindle sensitively expresses an internal landscape of self-doubt, best intention, and fear in a character who comes to the abrupt realization that he has everything to lose.  Those internal moments are punctuated by big scenic shots of the story's suburban setting, where the quiet of the environment and the large black spaces in the drawings lure the reader into the unsettling headspace the protagonist must navigate.  The three issue series is a good short story that is well suited to the format.   Hindle's decision to examine a situation so profoundly normal led him to capture an anxiety that is universal, and hard-wired in every reader.  There isn't enough here for a graphic novel, and it's the kind of story that would have been lost in an anthology, but that worked in this tiny package.

DeForge's Elizabeth of Canada was a delightful surprise.  I admire Forsman's ability to coax someone like DeForge, who's already been recognized as a finalist for the Cartoonist We Expect Big Things From designation to work in this format.  And Elizabeth of Canada delivers.  Set in the Canadian frontier at the end of the 19th Century, DeForge sets up a story about a young mother, her teen daughter, and other presumably single-digit-aged child as they advance ahead of the male provider into the uncertainty of the unsettled country.  DeForge's trademark surrealism of both art style and world building are here, but it feels more grounded and less outrageous than the wilder, and more confrontational work on view in his Koyama Press series Lose.  Although we're in set-up turf, I admire how he immediately captures the good humored mother-daughter bond on the first page of the book.  DeForge is a gifted cartoonist, and I like seeing him play an acoustic set like this.  I look forward to seeing where it goes.

In the late 90s I remember being blown away by the emergence of Tom Devlin's Highwater Books and Jordan Crane's Non because they'd cultivated a generation of unexpected new talent, and they presented the work in a format that defied the conventions of Cerebus on one hand, Hate on the other Alt comics, and the "ashcan" format farm league understanding of mini-comics.  Highwater's beautiful object quality, with silk-screened covers and lush interiors, and Non's high aspiration to stand shoulder to shoulder with Arcade, Raw, and Weirdo as a must read anthology for bleeding edge talent pointed the way for the decade of art comics that followed.  Business mutations happening in the same period established a dynamic where cartoonists jumped from mini-comics to graphic novels, partially due to the diminished viability of the periodical alt-comic, partially due to the sudden burst of traditional house cash to invest in developing the then-new growth category of graphic novels.  That gave us some pretty good comics.  But it also gave us a fair amount of beautiful silkscreened covers with undercooked interior content by cartoonists who gave up the ghost when the 5-figure advance failed to show up.  It also gave us some interesting work that disappeared when the advance never earned out.

Oily and the new generation of small publishers who've come to greater prominence, particularly since Dylan Williams died -- Koyama, Retrofit, Press Gang, Secret Acres, Domino Books, Revival House, Uncivilized Books, 2D Cloud, among others (and forgive me if I forgot you) -- seem to be an epochal shift as significant as Highwater and Non were in the late 90s.  All of these houses have embraced the short-form comic book and as a consequence are collectively giving a broad generation of new talent the room to grow.

Oily appeals to me not only because of the substance of the work, but because it's the kind of back-to-basics, unpretentious presentation of comics that puts all emphasis on execution and lets artists run or stumble on their chops absent any gimmicks.  And if they stumble one month, so what, it's just a dollar and twelve pages.  Better luck next month.

I can say with certainty, an Oily subscription is money well spent, and I encourage you to consider signing up for one before this current offer window closes on Halloween.  The quality of the work is always a treat when I find it waiting in my mail box.  It's as much fun to watch Forsman to develop as an editor as it is to watch he and his stable of cartoonists develop as creators.  And it's a template for the road ahead where new cartoonists can develop their craft without the surf or drown model of competing in a crowded marketplace with a graphic novel as your first entry into the audience consciousness.  No question, it's a future for comics, and it's just one of many.  And the more options the better, particularly when the results show as much promise as Oily does.

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