As I stated in my previous review for “The Outside Circle,” about an Aboriginal’s journey, you get to that point in the process where you say your work is more like A than B or C. In the case of the comics anthology, “Kramers Ergot,” it is, without a doubt, totally in the fine arts camp. This is where anything goes with subversion ruling the day. The shifts can be jarring but the payoffs can be great too.
It’s perfect timing for me to start off with the first entry to the latest KE, volume 9. We can do a little bit of comparing to my previous review dealing with Aboriginal people. “The Outside Circle” is a very sincere work with more of an earnest tone. Its goal is clarity of purpose and to deliver compelling facts much like a documentary. Steven Weissman has a different take in keeping with the goals of Kramers Ergot. In his story, the Native American character seems to have been stripped of any significance. He feels more like just a guy and flawed in a low-key sort of way. No great drama. This guy is a little jerk (a favorite comics trope): basically selfish and inconsiderate. The simplicity and Zen-like quality to this comic can be deceiving too. As we see, he might be on a quest, per se. But he is petty narrow-minded and that kills off any mystery. In the end, the animals will eventually pull rank on him. He is no hero but the story itself is magical. There is plenty of irony in this short work as opposed to a more earnest approach with the last book I reviewed.
For something more in line with pushing the limits as far as you can go, we can turn to Michael DeForge‘s totally ironic, “Computer.” This is a commentary on gorging on the internet and too much social media. The computer and college student love each other and they engage in unabashed sex. The acts they engage in are joyous and depicted in a relatively tasteful manner. It is what it is. That’s the limits that DeForge seems most interested in pushing. And, sure enough, it will offend some readers and helps to place this book in a teen and up category. The artwork is spare and crisp. Each reader will need to make their own value judgment on this one. Is it too crass? But, then again, hasn’t the internet made us all more crass or crass-tolerant?
Among the excerpts on display to works-in-progress are pages from “Windows” by Gabrielle Bell. And, all I can say here is that Bell keeps getting better and better. If someone could get Bell to take her comics and adapt them into a series on HBO, that would be something! Certainly, Bell loves the medium she’s working in already. But, I’m just saying. What makes Bell’s work resonate? I’d say it is all about its honesty and consistent vision. For those of you unfamiliar with Gabrielle Bell’s work, you can think of it as autobio with a touch of magical realism. In the case of “Windows,” we follow Bell and her mom as they shop for a tiny house. You know, a tiny house, they’re all the rage. And pretty darn inexpensive. I’d love a tiny house of my own! Well, imagine a really good episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and then tweak in more dry wit and there you have it. Bell’s drawing style is as droll as her writing and that is no easy feat.
“Discipline,” by Dash Shaw, is another notable excerpt included here. Shaw and Bell, along with a number of other artists in this book, belong to the same tribe, as Peter Schjeldahl has put it regarding certain artists from a certain time and place. And, what I say about Bell, also holds true for Shaw albeit in a different sort of way special to him. I admire Dash Shaw’s uninhibited process, as I see it. He’s the kind of artist who will draw, and draw, and draw. And the sheer power of persistence will carry him over to a higher level. He’s imaginative, brave, and always interesting. From looking at the pages from “Discipline,” I like how the ambiguity keeps the reader at some distance. And I really like the more refined handling of the artwork compared to some work in the past. And, whatever Shaw is up to with a Civil War theme is okay by me!
Another challenging work is “Hypatia’s Last Hours,” by Anya Davidson, which could be disturbing for some readers but is certainly one of the most compelling pieces here. It is Alexandria, Egypt, circa 415 CE. We find Hypatia, a young woman who is trying her best to tutor Anaxis, a wayward and lusty young man. She leaves him frustrated and in a rush to present a lecture on the algebraic equations of Diophantus. But, before she gets too far, she is forcefully detained. She has been sentenced to death for crimes against the bishop. I admire Davidson’s simple rather geometric drawing style, and her use of bold primary colors. This is a story that quickly builds up to its dramatic and abrupt ending.
One piece that comes across as quite refreshing, so full of a joie de vivre, is Matthew Thurber‘s “Kill Thurber,” a hilarious time travel jaunt. Yes, Matthew Thurber is sick and tired of being associated with James Thurber. Sure, it was cute at first, but it’s really a drag when you find yourself on sort of a similar career path. Then it really sucks! Why did there ever have to be a James Thurber in the first place?! And then, as fate would have it, Matthew Thurber stumbles upon a plot by the writers who once held court at the fabled Algonquin Round Table. You know the bunch. People like Dorothy Parker and S. J. Perelman. Well, they would all like to see Thurber dead too! Utterly hilarious and drawn in a wry and witty style. Hooray for Matthew Thurber, no relation to James Thurber.
Another piece with a playful vibe is John Pham‘s “Scared Silly.” This piece follows two young friends, Kay and Jay, as they search for Kay’s “baby,” Bacne. It seems that the little one got lost in Holy Lake Cemetery. This is an excellent immersive narrative playing off more traditional comics storytelling. While invested with a lighthearted and whimsical quality, in the same spirit as the best comics of yesteryear, a dark wisdom prevails.
We come full circle with “The Kanibul Ball,” by Lale Westvind, with a decidedly existential bent. This is neither earnest or ironic. It’s a fantastical hybrid. Really, quite beautiful. We follow a woman who seems, at first, of no significance, more like a kook who would use tin foil to pick up signals from Mars. But the kooks shall inherit the Earth, right? It turns out that she has tapped into something cosmic. We then jump to the frantic anticipation of a huge animal gathering that will result in an orgy of feasting upon each other’s flesh. Our main character, in turn, is engaging in a gathering of beings from various interstellar origins. They are all gathered to feast upon each other, mind, body, and soul. The goal is to share in each other’s pain. It is a goal beyond our heroine’s understanding. However, the animals seem to understand these dark secrets all too well.
This is a book full of A-list cartoonists. These are the sort of comics artists for whom it is a point of pride to be squarely in the alternative comics camp. That means comics that are an alternative to genre, especially the superhero genre. Would they be at all interested in a corporate gig? No, not in general but do give them a call. They are mostly interested in the art. For these cartoonists, I dare say, they can take the art for art’s sake credo as far, even further, than some other artists in other art forms are willing to go. It’s a fascinating time to be part of comics at this level as the whole shooting match, comics as art and comics art criticism, is still so relatively new and in flux. A lot of these cartoonists are willing to only ask for some legitimacy and maybe even a taste of immortality. That is where a book such as Kramers Ergot gains its strength and integrity.