Tag Archives: alternative comics
I was running on a buzz from a Tequila Sunrise at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Of course, I was barefoot, my preference. I had flip flops at the ready under one arm and a copy of Proust in one hand. The other hand was navigating a filled-to-the-brim rolling carry-on. Just as I was about to brave my way into the security line, a woman in a large floppy hat, also barefoot, approached me. “Here you go, brother, you’ll want to read this and spread the word!” There wasn’t much chance that she recognized me as a cartoonist or a comics journalist. “You’ve got that star tattoo on your foot. Let it guide you, my man!” That comment was peaceful and it helped to reassure me–but more on that later. Indeed, the timing was very good. She placed in my hand a collection of comics, Gnartoons, by James the Stanton.
Right now, things have been quite hectic and distracting. I’ve been on the road, on the run, in more places and situations than I’ve been in for quite a while. The world is opening up, right? We’re somehow finding our way into something that is starting to look more and more like a post-Covid world. Of course, we’re not quite there yet, and yet, we are, aren’t we? And nothing seems to be working as it should. We remain in this topsy-turvy transitional phase. So, it is a perfect time to take a close look at a cartoonist engaged in the crazed world of comix, a new generation’s take on underground comix. That’s exactly what this guy is about, a cartoonist whose work I’ve been observing for well over a decade and who I am so glad to see showcased in this first collected works by Silver Sprocket.
Let me ask you something, do you like Johnny Depp? Or, more to the point, do you like his character, Captain Jack Sparrow? That character, as you can imagine, did not simply emerge overnight. It’s the result of a layer-upon-layer process. Going even further afield, do you know Errol Flynn? Now, he was sort of in a similar situation as Depp. Errol Flynn created a sensation in 1935 with his character, Captain Blood. Again, a case of a process that took time. In fact, Flynn’s acting improved so much over the course of filming that director Michael Curtiz had no choice but to reshoot some of the earlier scenes. Okay, all this comes to mind as I look over this book of comics. It’s a perfect case of juxtaposing earlier less developed work with more recent polished work. I certainly don’t mind that at all. I think it’s essential to be able to observe this creative evolution. It’s kind of fun, for a cartoonist such as myself, and it’s human nature to want to make these sort of comparisons. I don’t know if that was exactly the goal of this collection but I suspect it was a consideration. Art of any kind has its ups and downs. In this case, the lesser art acts as background for the gems.
The first gem in the book is quite a fine little masterpiece of style, pacing, and wicked humor. It’s truly a high point to this book and to the cartoonist’s career. Thanks to an extensive contents list at the back of the book that also acts as endnotes, I see that this story, “Limo King,” first appeared in the local Seattle comics newspaper, The Intruder, serialized in issues 16-18, May 2015-January 2016. So, not exactly a modest undertaking. It is steeped in the tradition of underground comics packed with lowlife lowbrow all-out zaniness. The sort of stuff that you can’t unsee once seen. We begin with two classic ne’er-do-wells enjoying some drinks out of an enchanted bottle of perpetually pouring bourbon. They’re inside a limousine that serves as the home for one of the guys, the aforementioned Limo King, as well as an on-call free ride service. Why the Limo King doesn’t charge a fare is unclear and best to just roll with. That night’s excitement is provided by a female grizzly bear out on the prowl. The story gets crazier from there, mayhem ensues, and ends with a street smart grace note as the Limo King observes that gnomes would never have called the cops: “Those lil folks are chill AF!”
It’s James the Stanton’s consistent style and bold street cred that keeps the reader charmed and intrigued throughout. The actual style borrows as much from the gritty underground ethos of yesteryear as it does from current trends in graffiti. As much is owed to trailblazers Jay Lynch and Jim Mitchell as to the drippy trippy work of Seattle’s Ten Hundred. A fair amount of this collection is made up of single page art, or a series of pages of neo-psychedelic art, which all takes on a logic of its own. Some stuff just needs to be what it is without a coherent narrative. That said, I tend to gravitate to the more constructed work, of which there is much to enjoy. Then again, as a painter, I’m strongly attracted to works in this book that would fit right in at any contemporary art gallery.
Another fine piece of narrative is a sort of science fiction story about the Florida wars set in the not-too-distant future. This neatly brings us back to my friend in the airport noticing the star tattoo on my foot. I can’t help but mention this story as part of the narrative involves how all the Florida natives were branded with dolphin tattoos on their left foot. It was the only way to try to establish some order during those very disturbing times! This is weird comics at its best, an intoxicating combination of inventiveness and sly humor.
One final example is the story, “Squatters of Trash Island, Part 2,” one of the most recent works, from Silver Sprocket, March 2017. It is clearly one of the more polished and developed of the sequential pieces here. This is pure Dada art fun as the story kicks off with two representatives from a a soft drink company tasked with removing any labels from discarded soda bottles with the company brand that have somehow reached a very disreputable landfill island. The two soda pop guys are shocked to find an entire community of people quite happy to live amid their own filth and, from time to time, copulate with dolphins. It’s a story that fits in well, with its strange beauty, within our own strange times.
To say that J. Webster Sharp is a visionary comics artist is a very good place to start. I was immediately intrigued by what I saw of her work on her Instagram and I knew I’d need to take a closer look. Having read the last five of her works in comics, I can confidently say that this is someone who tapped into something special early on and continues to blossom. Jemma’s latest book which I’ve received is Fondant #2, and it is easily her most powerful work. This is in-your-face stuff, delving into deep psychological and sexual issues, and bringing to mind such artists as Phoebe Glockner and Renee French. I applaud what she is doing and would like to share a bit of what I’ve observed.
If I’m really being honest, I am fascinated by Jemma’s daring and inventive play with the theme of feet. I’ve always been interested in feet on various levels, not the least of which is as a subject for art. So, it’s nice to see a fellow artist on the same page. Jemma certainly confronts the foot theme from a wide variety of vantage points, spanning from cadavers to tortured cathartic acts. Like much of what she does, feet are rendered in such a way as if encrypted within a larger psychological landscape–especially with her distinctive pointillist style. If you scan the pages too quickly, you might miss a lot. And, if you linger, it can be a combination of unsettling and satisfying. Yes, it pays to be honest. I do so love feet, particularly depicted in unusual and provocative ways. I’m sure there’s a number of stories behind each of these depictions. I like what I see from this very honest and daring artist.
What is so impressive to me about Jemma’s latest book is how she reached a point where she was ready to just completely let loose. This book is totally wordless and confidently so. There’s no need to explain anything. You simply don’t need any form of text to accompany an image of breasts with teeth instead of nipples. That pretty much speaks for itself. The rest of the book plays with more body horror as well as various other surreal imagery involving exotic animals, bondage and strange lab experiments. It’s all quite unusual, fascinating and thrilling. If you enjoy work of a more adult nature, then this is for you. Obviously, this is highly charged work that is unafraid to be, at times, more dark and challenging. But it’s not simply shock value that Jemma is after. Like Phoebe Glockner and Renee French, the work of J. Webster Sharp is invested in cultivating mystery and wonder through finely-crafted work. As I suggest, you will be rewarded for taking the time to linger upon a page. You may even find that you like what you see more than you realized.
Hello, friends, Hurricane Nancy graces the site with another Making Changes comic strip. This one is entitled, “Leaving Home Planet.” Here are some notes from Nancy on this comic strip:
“Leaving the Planet is the old story, your parent kicks you out to go to college some such thing and on the planet of the Teddy bears there is public transportation to the college planet (and others not in this strip). So our teddy goes. There are sentient beings from other places.
The teddy also hooks up with a gal from another planet at college and heads back to teddy planet with her and their kid. By public interstellar transportation.”
Be sure to visit Hurricane Nancy at her website right here.
Desmond Reed is a very talented cartoonist with a unique voice. If you enjoy quirky and weird comics, this is for you. I would describe the work as highly inventive and ambitious. Welcome to the world of the most unlikely band, The Cola Pop Creemees! These characters are young, energetic, and sometimes sad: think of it as a mashup of The Monkees and Bojack Horseman. It all began as fun posts on Instagram to cope with the pandemic and now Desmond Reed has a book on the way with a publisher and a 28-page comic book, Apples, thanks to a 2021 MICE Mini-Grant. You can purchase Apples through Radiator Comics (as well as other venues) as of November 1, 2021.
Laugh and cry as you experience the adventures of everyone’s least favorite band, The Cola Pop Creemees! These are the misadventures of a group of friends who form a band: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Mona Gertrude, Gil Christopher, and Henrietta Susan. The names of an uncanny ring to them and are perfect for the mix of zany and bittersweet stories that follow.
Apples represents the best of the daily one-page comics posted on Desmond Reed’s Instagram from 2020 to 2021.
Apples is a recipient of a 2021 MICE Mini-Grant, and will be available for purchase through Radiator Comics (as well as other venues) on November 1, 2021.
Desmond Reed is definitely a talent to keep your eyes on. I hope you enjoy this interview where we discuss the artistic process and discuss comics and the comics scene. I’ve set this interview to premiere on my YouTube channel for this Wednesday, October 27th at 9am PST – 12noon EST. Your Likes, Comments and Subscribing are always welcome.
The Cola Pop Creemees. Desmond Reed. Self-published. 2021. 232pp. $25
Desmond Reed has gone deep into cartoonland and delivered one very groovy book of comics goodness. Reed’s loopy characters literally dance upon the page. It’s a combination of whipsmart humor and design that will charm readers of all ages. There’s always room for another work in comics about a group of young people in a band, everything from Beatles comics to Josie and the Pussycats. But leave it to an ambitious indie cartoonist like Desmond Reed to take this genre into left field and high gear. The band of merry makers put the pow, buzz and boom into their music.
The artwork explodes upon the page in an amazingly smooth and natural way that you’d think Desmond Reed always drew this way. His previous book is something completely different, a shaggy dog homage to underground comix with heavy crosshatching and gross out humor. In comparison, his latest book is clean and crisp in execution and utterly charming in its sophisticated whimsy. It makes me think that it requires a good deal of planning ahead in order to get this precise look. It is after the artist has been toiling away, maybe not having the most fun, that the end result provides such a joyful reading experience.
The stories in this book revolve around a group of bohemian friends who have formed a band, the Cola Pop Creemees: Ralph Jonathan, Wallace T.J., Henrietta Susan, Gil Christopher and Mona Gertrude! The reader gets to see them struggle under authority figures and find their unique voices. Then the fun continues with various separate stories on each character. Maybe you’ve caught their misadventures on Instagram (@desmondtreed) and you’ve wondered if there might be a book collection. Well, there is and the first batch is sold out with plans for more in the near future. These comics are just too good to not give a proper shout out right now. Stay tuned for further developments by following Desmond Reed on Instagram (@desmondtreed)!
Chartwell Manor. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2021. 236pp, $29.99
Chicago: A Comix Memoir. Glenn Head. Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2015. 168pp, $16.97
Glenn Head is part of that select group of auteur cartoonists who has steadily been building up a body of work, with its surrealist bent and underground comix influence, that reaches the level of art. Much of his work, as creator and/or editor, has appeared in various comix anthologies: Bad News, Snake Eyes, Hotwire, and R. Crumb’s Weirdo magazine. And so it makes sense that Head has steadily been climbing the Mt. Everest of comix, the grand ole graphic novel.
Most aspiring cartoonists will never follow through on creating their very own full-length, full-bodied (sorry, no stick figures) autobiographical graphic novel, the pinnacle of auteur cartoonist ambition. However, where there is a will, there is a way. Glenn Head has done this particular feat twice. The most diligent of cartoonists would do well to follow closely what Head’s been up to with his last two books, observe how they oddly mirror each other, one a variation on the other. What I’m talking about is Head’s 2015 graphic novel, Chicago: A Comix Memoir, which was regarded as Head’s coming-of-age magnum opus. Well, he’s followed that up with his latest work, Chartwell Manor, which is another coming-of-age magnum opus: same protagonist and life struggles but, nearly twice as long, more refined, and pivoting off a different focal point.
As I leaf through this graphic novel, I am struck by all the intricate line work, all the meticulous detail, and all the frenetic energy. There’s a marvelous dance with death (and life!) going on, almost spinning out of control, and yet very well balanced. The artist is in the lead. Death will have to wait its turn. If we try to compare both books, Chartwell Manor is perhaps more focused and detailed, not to take anything away from Chicago. While the Glen character in the first book is going through a series of dark episodes, including an interlude with a troubled woman, it is the second book that confronts what is the root cause of Glen’s instability and struggle. The significance of this root cause is underscored by the fact it is not mentioned at all in the first book. The harrowing events of being molested at a boarding school, by the headmaster no less, are not afforded even one panel in the first book. But, by astonishing contrast, the boarding school IS the second book, covering most pages.
Sordid content, twisted and unabashed, all that very messy human stuff, is only hinted at in most mainstream graphic novels. Whatever the case, great work will emerge, sometimes from a big traditional publisher. But, aside from self-published work, the really gritty stuff comes from the smaller niche publishers. Among that set, Fantagraphics is a leader in the United States. In fact, it has cultivated a particular vibe that, along with a high standard of excellence, places it in a unique position. Much angst going back to underground comix of the sixties finds a home there. This particular point of view, this grungy campy swagger, has had plenty of time to ferment into a brand. Those who are part of it find themselves deeply enmeshed in a scene: part way of life; part putting on an act. But what is an act and what is real? That’s part of the mystique. What matters in the end is the end result, a work that aspires to something bigger, a work of art.
Dancing with death can tire you out so it’s good to pace yourself. The reader will see the satisfaction that comes from someone working on their craft. On one level, it’s the very act of working on a big project, whatever the content, that sustains an ambitious cartoonist. This is a graphic novel focusing on Head experiencing abuse at Chartwell Manor, a boarding school, and the years of living with that, a lifetime of living with that. This book provides a latter day underground cartoonist like Head another chance to push his style further, to level up his connection to the past, compared to all the great soul-baring cartoonists who have come before: Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Bill Griffith, Art Spiegelman, Jack Jackson, S. Clay Wilson, Robert Williams, and so on. It’s feeding, what I call, a “persistence of style.” Like he does in Chicago, Head can evoke an extended passage about him as a young and troubled youth, walking around naked in his family home with a loaded gun, aiming it at his head and pulling the trigger, and the act of creating that into comix is not necessarily a cathartic act, as much as it’s an artistic act. That’s not to belittle at all what happened to Head at Chartwell Manor. There are definitely demons to be exorcised. That’s just to point out that Head would be a lesser artist if his main aim was to have his graphic novel simply be a therapeutic act. It’s a complicated and thoroughly fascinating journey to explore the past while navigating your way to creating art.
There are key moments in the book, during and after Head’s time at Chartwell Manor where he talks to his parents and tries to let them know about the horror. In an early scene, while Head is still a student there, it seems like the parents are right on the verge of knowing but don’t want to know. It’s one of those instances when you wonder if something was said between the panels. Other moments, depicted from years later, also leave the reader wondering what the parents are aware of and what they are in denial about. It’s an ambiguous thread running throughout–and done to great effect.
All those dirty little secrets that seem to have no way of getting out! And then they do. Ways are found to vent out frustration. It’s no exaggeration to say that underground comix have a lot to do with venting out frustration! The whole autobio comics genre has weathered various cycles of backlash, unfairly labeled as heavy-handed and a way for cartoonists to use it as therapy to work out personal problems. But, at the end of the day, most readers are fine to take the risk that some work will fall short while some will rise to the highest level. Honestly, any artist worth their salt, is going to tackle some form of autobiography. And, hey, all comics of this sort, in one form or another, is a story reflecting back to its creator.
It’s important to note that each book has its lighter moments. In Chartwell Manor, those moments are mostly concerned with the process of creating comics. Chicago has a more experimental vibe, even whimsical at times, as when Head stumbles upon a visit to Chicago by Muhammad Ali and nearly gets his block knocked off. The point is that Head is in a wonderful place. Like any artist at this stage of their career, Head has a treasure trove to work from, plenty to return to for future books. With Chicago and Chartwell Manor, readers can see for themselves two distinct ways of presenting similar facts and the promise of what lies ahead.
The Complete Hate Box Set. by Peter Bagge. Fantagraphics, Seattle. 938 pp, $119.99.
A great way to savor or discover the work of cartoonist Peter Bagge is the new collection, The Complete Hate Box Set, published by Fantagraphics Books. Peter Bagge is indeed a significant cartoonist, and one of the bright lights that led me to Seattle back in the early ’90s. Like so many, for me, a copy of Hate comics was a perfect companion while sipping a latte at Caffe Vita, downing a beer at the Comet Tavern, or anticipating a show at the Re-bar. It was a time to see and be seen and, no doubt, to mock your fellow hipster. And few, if any, did it quite as well as Peter Bagge in his ultra-satirical comic book series featuring the ultimate malcontent, Buddy Bradley.
With hindsight, Hate seems like the perfect comic to encompass this whole grungy era. The title alone sounds like a timeless tribute to callow youth. But as Bagge explains in the introduction to this collection, nothing was so smoothly planned in advance, including the title, which only came about sort of by accident. It wasn’t as if Bagge had set out, without a care in the world, to be a successful satirist. First, Bagge slowly but surely developed Neat Stuff, a comic based upon his own family growing up. His main character, Buddy Bradley, was loosely based upon himself. And, as luck would have it, a somewhat older Buddy was right in step with a whole new zietgeist and would go on to take a prominent spot in the new wave of alternative comics of the 1990s.
Hate has its own loopy specificity, a zany quality built from Archie Comics, MAD Magazine, and all manner of underground comix. It was to be Bagge’s answer to the hegemony of the ’60s counterculture. And it was to be more than just a comic from the halcyon days of Generation X. It has moved past that and entered a new phase where it can take a rightful place among the best in comics. It does this by simply being something exceptional in terms of style, consistency, and inventiveness.
You can say that Hate is a prime example of an excellent comic willed into existence by a very determined cartoonist. And the best test of that is how it grabs the reader. As I progress from one panel to the next, I am struck by the energy and vision on display. These are very loopy characters, out of reality in an uncanny way and yet what they say rings true and sounds like the sort of kooky youthful insights and outbursts going on in very real taverns, night clubs, and shanty apartments. In other words, Hate shares all the characteristics of some of the very best that comics have to offer. Hate lampooned Seattle hipsterdom while also being a part of it. Not an easy thing to do unless you’re focused and persistent. And, perhaps most important of all, don’t take any of it too seriously to begin with.
The Complete Hate Box Set is available as of December 1, 2020. For more details, visit Fantagraphics Books right here.