Wonderful things often take place in the world of alt-comics. I’m talking about when a bigger publisher lends a hand to help a smaller publisher. A case in point is the graphic novel, Jeremiah, which joins AdHouse Books in promoting and distributing and One Percent Press in publishing this remarkable work. There are quite a few gems out there among indie comics and Cathy G. Johnson proves that wonders never cease. Johnson’s work has a beauty that looks effortless and pure. In the span of 160 pages, she mesmerizes the reader with her gentle yet powerful watercolor comics.
“You are not a child.”
This is the story of Jeremiah, a young man who seems to be a blank slate with no past or future, just a country boy out in the middle of nowhere. Jeremiah may seem pretty simple and, in a lot of ways, he is. But he also has his own set of complex desires. Johnson masterfully rolls out a narrative pared down to its essentials while brimming with ambiguity and mystery. Just what is the relationship between Catie and Jeremiah? Perhaps a handyman can help sort through an accumulation of despair and confusion.
A boy’s desire may consume him.
Johnson conveys emotion in her artwork in a very direct and economical way. She can evoke years of longing and melancholy with just the right amount of lines and wash. Poor Jeremiah. He’s still just a boy and his mounting desire may consume him if he doesn’t free himself. Johnson practices the subtle art of restraint in telling his story; and, in the end, it all comes out when Johnson is ready to release the floodgate.
Lost among the corn fields.
For more details, be sure to visit Cathy G. Johnson right here.
Lawns, by Alex Nall, published by Kilgore Books, is a small graphic novel that, to my reading, is essentially a parable about the consequences of turning someone into a scapegoat. No one likes Roger. Neighbors condemn him for his unkempt lawn and for his unleashed dog. It seems like a manageable problem but definitely not in this small town. Roger is the town’s Boo Radley. Nall has put together a narrative that follows the election of the town’s mayor. Chuck is running undisputed. However, Carl, a disgruntled and unsavory sort, has mounted a write-in campaign for himself. Oddly enough, Carl makes a few good points but he’s pathetically unqualified. Poor Roger falls somewhere in the middle as a convenient distraction. Overall, I think the story would have been better off had Roger, already having inspired the town’s ire, had been the sole issue in the town’s election. That said, this is an ambitious undertaking and Nall deserves credit.
Page excerpt from LAWNS
A hallmark of many a work of alt-comics is that it is all done by hand and basically retains an organic vibe. Nall is certainly aware of that and appears to revel in it. My only quibble is that the drawing, at times, falls short on clarity and consistency. I’m not saying the rendering needs to be worked over in some elaborate way. If you take a look at Charles Forsman’s Hobo Mom, this is quite a compelling short graphic novel, only 62 pages, done in a relatively simple style. Nall seems to want to vary how he depicts the main character, Roger, but the way he goes about it has the potential to lose the reader. And, towards the end, there are some scenes that are a bit rushed. This is not to say that Nall should ever consider losing his expressive line. I do prefer a more sketchy line than one that is way too polished. Sometimes, you just go where you need to go as a cartoonist and let your expressive line evolve as you evolve. I am certainly curious to see what Mr. Nall does next since he’s clearly hungry for a challenge and he’s a capable cartoonist.
Lawns is a 108-page trade paperback, b&w, published by Kilgore Books.
We all experience bullies in one form or another–you just can’t escape them. Collectively, many of us are dealing with being bullied by the President of the United States. It is a phenomena many of us (I would really like to say ALL of us) hope will never happen again. Donald Trump has been a bully for decades. He was the model for one of pop culture’s most infamous bullies, Biff Tannen, from the Back to the Future franchise. Well, Paul Constant channels Biff Tannen in his script for a very funny and refreshing new comic book, Planet of the Nerds, published by AHOY Comics.
AHOY Comics? you may ask. I know. It’s new and it’s made a lot of promises that it has attached to its name: A is for Abundance. H is for Humor. O is for Originality. And Y is for YES! AHOY founder Hart Seely is a former newspaper man and he’s serious about wanting to provide something substantial to the comic book market. So far, it does look good for AHOY as they have hit the ground running with a nice mix of titles: The Wrong Earth finds a superhero and supervillain trading places; High Heaven gives a chronic complainer his comeuppance; Captain Ginger is an all-out cats-in-outerspace adventure; and Edgar Allan Poe’s Snifter of Terror is sort of a revisit to Tales of the Crypt. Part of the next wave of titles is Planet of the Nerds. All these titles share a really fun format that includes the feature story, a background story, plus a surprise grab bag that can include prose and even poetry.
Chad pummels Alvin Ad Infinitum
Getting back to Planet of the Nerds, this first issue packs a wallop thanks to the upbeat script by Constant as well as the impressive work by the rest of the creative team which includes artist Alan Robinson and colorist Felipe Sobreiro. The opener finds our bully, Chad, center stage as he pummels Alvin, a hapless fellow high school student. Chad is as stereotypical a bully as you’ll ever care to find. And Alvin is as stereotypical a misfit as you’ll ever see. And perhaps therein lies a wonderful opportunity to play with some well-worn tropes. Will Chad just keep whomping on Alvin? Will Alvin just keep being a doormat? It is a pure dichotomy, a Zen-like premise, a perfect paring of yin and yang. Constant breaks things up by having Chad’s two allies, Steve and Drew, act more human than henchmen. And the initial setting for the story is the late ’80s complete with all its excess and naivete. One of the best lines in this first issue is from Jenny, Steve’s girlfriend, who sweetly mocks his naturally meek demeanor: “If a man in a brown van tries to give you candy, just say, ‘No!'” Ah, nostalgic young love! The art by Robinson and the colors by Sobreiro conspire to provide just the right retro look reminiscent of the work of Ed Piskor.
Cover artist David Nakayama
Suffice it to say, everything is set for a rollicking good adventure. It will be no spoiler to say that this is something of a time travel story. AHOY says as much in their promo copy. And there is definitely a Back to the Future vibe going on here. The future in this case is our own era, a time that would leave any kid from the ’80s doing double takes. Chad, the ultimate nerd hater must come face to face with a world where, as we’ve heard so often, the nerds have won. But have they, really? I don’t know that this comic will fully answer that question but you just never know.
Planet of the Nerds #1 is available as of April 17th, published by AHOY Comics. For more details, and how to purchase, go right here.
The other night, I was part of a marketing workshop. It was a little disheartening since I got pegged as a dreamer who didn’t care about business plans but just followed his muse–in other words, the antithesis of a marketing person, as far as a marketing person is concerned. But I remain hopeful. I think reading this review might help these marketing people out quite a bit. I am speaking about writing authentically about authentic things, the very thing the marketing people claimed to value. The point is that this one-shot comic book, This Love So Brief, published by Action Lab Entertainment is just the sort of subversive and authentic stuff that really baffles marketing people but is welcomed by all of us discerning readers! Okay, now let’s take a look at this advance spoiler-free review.
It is very serendipitous that my own eyeballs should fall upon this particular comic book as it is a prime example of the alternative comics aesthetic that I gravitate to. This is a collection of personal stories by cartoonist Fred Chao. There are no superheroes flying around in capes. There’s no big cuddly cast of animal characters either. Those are marketing bonanzas, right? Bread and butter stuff. Money. Money. Money. Well, the creator of this comic book appreciates that. Frank Chao, after all, is known for his children’s book, Alison and her Rainy Day Robot and the comic strip, Alison and her Rock Awesome Robot. That sounds market-friendly–and nothing wrong with that. But he’s also known for Johnny Hiro (Half Asian, All Hero) and Johnny Hiro (The Skills to Pay the Bills) which attracts the art-loving crowd. Which brings us over to this new comic book which is an opportunity fulfilled to break free and say a few things from the heart.
The first thing you notice right away about Chao’s artwork is a lightness about it. The first thing you notice right away about Chao’s prose is a similar lightness, an openness, an honesty. These are a bunch of little stories, little observations, mostly about mad youthful falling in, and out of, love. Tied in with life’s loves, and their euphoria and drama, is an ever-evolving appreciation for the delicate balance that is life. A person can be nearly tone deaf to what it takes to create art but just about everyone can relate to how precious and vulnerable life itself really is. Bit by bit, moving past elementary school crushes, and sliding into the sweet melancholy of true wisdom, Chao shares a few tales that will both engage and delight readers. Every generation has its profound moments meeting the dawn after a rooftop party. Chao got his chance to write and draw his take on it in this charming comic book.
When I review comics, I look to see how that work is engaging with the medium: Is it the best possible comics? With the subgroup of alt-comics, I’m also asking myself: Is this the best use of the art form–just how artful is it? Matt MacFarland creates comics that rise to a high level as art. Just take a look at the latest issue of his ongoing humorous noir series, Dark Pants #4.
MacFarland has treated his series like an artist goes about creating a body of work, mindful of various components: theme, motif, overall sensibility. The recurring pattern here is a pair of sexy vintage black jeans. Anyone who wears them will need to confront their darkest desires and also be compelled to live them out. In Issue 4, we find a woman at odds with her life. Lisa is a realtor and sick of it. She has convinced herself that she can get out of her rut if she has an affair with Cal, her yoga instructor. Enter the dark pants.
We all live our lives in a series of narratives. Even the dullest day job can act as a backdrop for some sort of relatively compelling drama. Maybe the most interesting thing about some people at work is how they avoid work. Maybe the most interesting thing about how some people avoid life is the lengths they will go to avoid it like subjecting themselves to the most empty distractions like being pathetically immersed in hopelessly shallow TV shows. The big challenge for a MacFarland character is to try to avoid their own mediocrity and despair and not just add to it.
There is delicious despair on view with every brushstroke in every panel of MacFarland’s comics. The characters are already so beaten down that you root for them to simply not hurt themselves much more if possible, to just survive another day. Doesn’t that pretty much sum up what noir is all about? Dark characters doing dark things until their nihilism gets the better of them! Well, our main character, Lisa, is ready to roll the dice and damn the consequences.
And you’ll love the object of Lisa’s desire. Cal is an ultra-groovy dude, with long shaggy hair that he keeps in a “man bun.” He plays his role to perfection as he tempts Lisa to take a walk on the wild, or sort of wild, side. In fact, not wild at all but just another stupid distraction so stupid as to chill the bone.
Dark Pants #4 is available now. For more details, visit Matt MacFarland right here.
Every art form has its dark, morose, and melancholic aspect. Comics, despite the ingrained comedy in its very name, is a truly dark art much of the time. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. What can you say when you’re feelin’ glum, chum? See ya in the funny papers! One of the best examples of the tragicomic in comics can be found in the work of legendary cartoonist Bill Griffith. Considering a lot of the surreal and loopy stuff that Griffith has depicted over the years, he always manages to not lay it on too thick, finding just the right balance. He is certainly just the right artist to tackle the life and times of one of the strangest and most celebrated of weary souls, Schlitzie the Pinhead. In Nobody’s Fool, published by Abrams, Mr. Griffith has achieved a crowning achievement in the comics medium.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead
There’s a unique experience that creators have, particularly writers of one form or another, that provides the loopy sensation of having your creation come to life. Yes, there’s is definitely something behind the idea of having your characters take on lives of their own. This notion comes to mind when contemplating Mr. Griffith’s journey with the inspiration for his legendary comic strip, the cool and sardonic Zippy The Pinhead. Where Zippy, the weirdo in a mumu, will forever be the epitome of deadpan irony, the actual source for Zippy is quite a different story. Schlitzie the Pinhead was quite literally a circus freak. In 1963, Griffith, a young struggling artist, caught a screening of the 1932 cult classic, Freaks, directed by Tod Browning, in which Schlitzie played a modest but memorable role. After viewing Schlitzie on screen, the imagery stuck in Griffith’s mind and quickly morphed into a comics avatar. All these years later, Griffith is able to reconcile the original Zippy with his own work and pay tribute to Schlitzie.
Zippy The Pinhead by Bill Griffith
The Many Names of Schlitzie The Pinhead
This is one of those remarkable graphic novels that truly takes your breathe away. It shares a space with the best that the comics medium has to offer. It’s a utterly original and distinctive work of art inextricably linked to one legendary talent. The detail and dedication involved to make this happen is comparable, say, to your favorite movie up for an Academy Award. Yes, it’s that big of a deal. The amounts of hours put in, all the little details, are staggering to think about. Griffith dug deep, doing his research and going back to interview as many individuals as he could find associated with the celebrated circus freak. And what did he find? Well, part of the charm of a book like this is simply the journey itself. Griffith is careful to modulate how much of himself he directly places into the narrative. But, in the end, he’s as much a key player as anyone else in the book. We find him connecting the dots along the way and, ultimately, we have a key sequence with him viewing and processing that infamous and misunderstood film, Freaks.
All it took was some red hots.
Griffith spares no expense, as it were, in fully depicting the life and times of Schlitzie the Pinhead. For a cartoonist who gave us, Zippy, an icon of irony, the irony must not be lost on Griffith for devoting so much time and effort to Schlitzie, a prime example of an utterly simple soul. When you dig deep into the life of Schlitzie, it breaks one’s heart to find such an overwhelming nothingness. Schlitize enjoyed, or tolerated, performing for big crowds. But, truth be told, he mostly enjoyed washing dishes and eating fried chicken. Ah, but in the hands of a masterful cartoonist, profound beauty can be found in the darkest of places.
Nobody’s Fool: The Life and Times of Schlitzie the Pinhead is a 256-page hardcover published by Abrams ComicArts, to be released March 19, 2019. For more details, visit Abrams right here.
Kalen Knowles is a Seattle cartoonist who has created quite a fun selection of comics in solo efforts as well as anthologies that he has led. If you like more sophisticated horror, with a touch of whimsy, then check out his books right here.
Kalen Knowles, like many a cartoonist, is compelled to write and draw. Sometimes, a writer-artist simply needs to find a good reason to let loose and create. Mr. Knowles has found a fine vehicle in classic horror, namely H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and Bram Stoker’s Dracula mythos. You can take either one or both and build new stories and worlds to your heart’s content. Knowles has done just that. His Journal series gives us a whimsical look at the journal entries of a young and misunderstood Cthulhu.
From DOCTOR DRACULA
Doctor Dracula provides us with various Dracula backstories. It has proven to be such a great jumping off point for creative exploration that Knowles has shared the spotlight with other cartoonists on a Doctor Dracula anthology. A closer look at other work by Knowles demonstrates an emerging talent making a lot of rad art. And I’d like to take a moment to talk about how an artist evolves.
The only way an artist grows is by creating. I think Knowles is on the right track as he draws from classic horror as well as other genres and sources: Sci-Fi, fantasy, RPG, mythology. It’s the responsibility of the artist to look out for themselves: be their harshest critic and biggest fan. When releasing a book, seek out clarity and make sure your name is front and center. Anthologies and social gatherings each have their essential place in an artist’s life but, in the end, it’s all about one particular artist and one particular art career. It’s about taking the work seriously. If an artist does that, the rest will follow. So, again, I believe Knowles is on the right track.
Which is funnier, The Wizard or Womp Womp? This is NOT a trick question. If you’re familiar with the work of Brandon Lehmann, then you know it’s BOTH! Yes, both are full to the brim with quirky goodness. Mr. Lehmann has, deep in his DNA, the trait to make with the funny in as funny a way a possible. The jokes are not just jokes but part of some greater surreal universe. The more obscure and offbeat the better while also in tune with a contemporary sensibility. Quick. Sharp. Sly. That’s why they find such a nice home on Mr. Lehmann’s Instagram account. And that’s why they do so well in a collected format, like the books he has on sale at his site.
From THE WIZARD by Brandon Lehmann
You’ll find Lehmann’s comics in various formats. Some begin their lives as digital entities on the mighty Web. Others might leapfrog right into the pages of a mini-comic. Eventually, some of this material is deemed worthy of the ultimate honor, collected into a perfect bound trade paperback. Lehmann collects these gems under his own micro-publisher brand, Bad Publisher Books, which is based in Seattle and specializes in local mini-comics. That brings us back to such titles as The Wizard and Womp Womp. Given that Lehmann is such a prolific cartoonist, these two titles prove to be excellent introductions. The Wizard book that I read, is the second compilation of Wizard comics. In that book, you will find a cantankerous old wizard with the temperament of teenager. In fact, all the characters are a bunch of malcontents: a wiener dog, the Minotaur, even Satan. If you like the sarcastic bite of shows like Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty, then there’s something here for you.
From WOMP WOMP by Brandon Lehmann
Womp Womp collects some of Lehmann’s best online comics and definitely deserves a careful reading. Or read it as casually as you like. Either way, you will be swept up by the crisp timing. Lehmann taps into what can be magical about comedy: the surprise followed up by another surprise that somersaults into an impressively sustained narrative. It looks so easy, right? Take one of these multi-panels for example, “The Coolest Phone of 2009.” The first panel, the only one in color, depicts an awkward-looking young woman holding up a flip phone. The rest of the panels depict a police crime drama. At the scene of a heinous act, one cop proceeds to call it in using his Hitachi Woo Ketai H001 flip phone. This triggers a discussion on the growing trend to abandon the self-absorbed smartphone lifestyle for the simpler pleasures of a basic phone. It’s a funny premise to begin with and Lehmann plucks it like heavenly harp strings.
Lehmann’s work has appeared in Thick As Thieves, Intruder, and Seattle Weekly. I’m sure you’ll be seeing more of his work in the years to come. So, if you enjoy brilliantly weird humor, go check out the work of Brandon Lehmann.
This is a very meta thing to be doing but here’s a review of a magazine that features reviews. Dating back to 1977, in its heyday, The Comics Journal was a monthly source of comics news and reviews, a trailblazer for the burgeoning field of comics journalism and criticism. It has always maintained a certain quirky attitude, consisting of a mix of features and topped off by a expansive soul-searching interview a la Playboy magazine. It mainly attracts those who consider themselves comics aficionados. In 2013, it ceased its print version, staying online, but now it makes its return to print with Issue 303. TCJ returns this month with new editors RJ Casey and Kristy Valenti.
Now, I go pretty far back. I have fond memories of picking up this magazine at Tower Records back in the day (circa 1995), usually with a recent release from Sub Pop Records. I also fondly recall a special dynamic, or synergy, at play between the magazine and its online counterpart that led many of us to the forums section that let you interact with subgroups within subgroups of people in the comics community. This was long before Facebook or social media as we know it today. I think the monthly magazine, as we knew it back then, is still sorely missed. Towards the end of its print run, it came out less often and each issue covered a big theme and came out in different sizes. The consistency of a monthly had been lost. I think, in a perfect world, this latest return to print would do well to go back to that monthly format. Alas, with this latest #303, we’re seeing the start of a twice-a-year format. You might argue that TCJ is simply working with today’s print reality and is offering up a taste to a new generation of what is possible.
The showcase item in this issue is, of course, TCJ founder Gary Groth’s interview with a legendary firebrand, the satirist and children’s book author, Tomi Ungerer. For those of you unaware of Mr. Ungerer’s impressive career, I highly recommend that you read this interview and, before or afterward, check out the 2013 documentary, “Far Out Isn’t Far Enough,” directed by Brad Bernstein. The title is one of Ungerer’s sayings, along with “Don’t Hope, Cope” and “Expect The Unexpected.” I interviewed the documentary’s director and its writer and the fact that Ungerer is a true force of nature was the overriding theme. So, it makes perfect sense for someone as outspoken as Groth to sit down and talk it out with someone as outspoken as Ungerer! It’s a match made in heaven.
From Ben Passmore’s story in Now: The New Comics Anthology #3, published by Fantagraphics
Among the various features to be found here, you’ll find them under such titles as “From the Trenches” and “Fair Warning.” For example, under the former is a think piece by cartoonist Ben Passmore, who shares his insights on the alt-comics scene from an African American perspective. And, under the latter, you will find an interview by RJ Casey with emerging comics talent, Fifi Martinez. The thing to always remember about TCJ is that its focus is a serious look at comics as an art form. That leaves little room, if any, for superhero comics, per se. What you’ll mostly find here is a focus on the independent artist-cartoonist. It does a heart good to see cartoonists like Passmore and Martinez provided with a platform.
Ultimately, TCJ remains what it’s always been, a valuable resource that is most appreciated by those who take the comics medium seriously. It’s a niche audience but a fiercely loyal one. In the new more fragmented world we live in, it’s all about niches. That is actually a very positive thing. And niches are supposed to attract outside readers too, right? You can only calculate so much as to how strong a presence you can make on today’s newsstands. For some special readership out there, it will be a great treat to see TCJ on a shelf. Newsstands aren’t going away anytime soon from such places as Barnes & Noble, specialty shops, comic book shops, and even airports. TCJ might just want to make a real push into these venues and see how it goes. I asked about TCJ at my local B&N as well as the Pike Place Market newsstand, one of the granddaddies of newsstands. Neither place had ever heard of TCJ or had any plans to carry it. I asked around a couple of nearby comics shops. They heard of it but were not carrying it. This is TCJ’s return to print, right? Let’s see it out there in the real world.
The reality is that creating any kind of magazine, digital or print, is a big challenge. Everyone in the comics community is rooting for TCJ to make as big of an impact as it can. Those of us already in the choir, can keep singing its praises and wish it well. You can find your copy of TCJ #303 by visiting the Fantagraphics store right here.
Every Hitchcock film features someone out of their element. My favorite Hitchcock character is the dapper ad exec Roger Thornhill, played to the hilt by Cary Grant, in North by Northwest. In the new graphic novel, Tumult, we have another ad exec type minus the charm. Enter Adam Whistler, a thirtysomething bratty wannabe artistic filmmaker. Writer John Harris Dunning and artist Michael Kennedy concoct a delicious brew of noir mystery with their Hitchcock-inspired graphic novel, published by SelfMadeHero.
Morgan, is that you?
This is a story of a man steadily getting in over his head. First, he has an affair with a teenager that destroys his marriage. Then he proceeds to destroy his career just as it looks like he’s about to land the film project of his dreams. He seals his fate when he has an encounter with a mysterious woman that he can’t let go. Her name is Morgan. Or is it Leila? Or Pretty Princess? The improbable suddenly becomes probable as Adam falls into a downward spiral. Subplots help to lighten and darken the narrative as needed. Adam has a friend who is endlessly reciting his opinion on macho-themed movies. Morgan can’t break free of Dave, an unsavory and persistent troll.
A fool in the making.
This is Mr. Kennedy’s first graphic novel and Mr. Dunning’s second. His previous one is Salem Brownstone. Dunning also set up the prestigious exhibition, Comics Unmasked, at the British Library. No doubt, Tumult would fit right in with that. Kennedy commands the pages with a bold and brash style, both exuberant and precise. His striking color choices compliment his powerful linework. I have to hand it to both gentlemen. It encourages me as this is just the type of offbeat stuff that I both write and draw for my own comics. And it is definitely my preferred choice of comics to read. I’ll bet it might be yours as well.
A touch of the littlest hobo.
Tumult is a 184-page full color hardcover published by SelfMadeHero.