Thursday, October 16, 2008

What I read tonight, 10/16/08

Some mini-comics...

Three Very Small Comics Volume III by Tom Gauld: As the title suggests, this is three tiny books, all folded neatly into a little paper pouch. Gauld has always struck me as a somewhat amusing but ultimately not substantial artist, whose stories give me a chuckle or a moment of contemplation but soon slip away from my mind entirely. The one exception I've encountered so far is here, an eight-panel story called "The Art of War" that I originally read in issue #7 of art/comics magazine The Drama, and which is here reformatted into an accordion-fold little booklet with one panel per small "page." It's a perfect encapsulation of the unchanging horrors of war across a huge span of time, from man's earliest forays into killing other men to the far reaches of futuristic battles. It's simple and economical, with a single line of dialogue stretching across the first seven panels, leaving the last as a silent beat to let the repetition and monotony hit home. It's a great story, and even better in this format — which emphasizes its formal qualities — than it was in its original appearance. "Gardening," formatted as a more traditional but still tiny book, is less affecting, but its quiet, rhythmic story is nevertheless amusing and charmingly ambiguous in its oblique commentary on class warfare. Gauld's greatest strength is his masterful deployment of silence, which here gives a brief story an unexpectedly languid, patient quality. I think, for this reason, Gauld will really come into his own if he moves beyond shorter strips and creates a work of some length, where his signature themes and concerns — power, war, manual labor, the countryside — can be developed in more depth. The final comic here folds out into a big poster, a dialogue-free cabinet of curiosities that gives Gauld more opportunity than usual to flex his drawing chops, molding all sorts of weird objects and creatures. It's pretty forgettable though.

National Waste #7 by Leif Goldberg: I like Goldberg best when he's indulging the two extremes of his style, either lushly painted absurdist landscapes (as in his Kramer's Ergot appearances) or sketchy semi-narrative vignettes, as in the weirdly fun previous issue of National Waste. He's doing neither here, and this is basically just a grab-bag of roughly collaged images, few of which cohere or go beyond sketchbooky nonsense. The one exception is a truly wonderful surrealist sequence in which an oil truck backs into some kind of processing plant, then squeezes out a tube of dough-like material from its back, with faces drawn on the round end of the tube. As each face is sliced off in thin strips, a fresh one is revealed below, and the faces all flutter down into a hole in the ground. Does it mean anything? Eh, probably, but mostly it's just a striking, inexplicably moving sequence of images, maybe even Goldberg's best stretch of pure comics. It reminds me quite strongly of Helge Reumann's work, especially the wordless strips he's contributed to various issues of Kramer's Ergot. Goldberg's sequence is surrounded by a whole bunch of fluff, but this core of weird beauty alone makes the book worth looking at.

Core of Caligula by C.F.: Just 8 pages long, collecting a series of strips originally published as two-sided single sheets. It's brief, sort of a narrative, about a guy who's released from a hospital, finds a tape recorder, and wanders around in a daze recording things... and showing his penis a lot, I'm not sure why. It's not as coherent as the world-building on display in Powr Mastrs so far, but the drawing style is similar, with loose but suggestive linework that can occasionally be dazzling in its effect, as in a panel where a man gets "vaporized" by the hero's unexplained cosmic powers. Also, only a naif genius like C.F. could find the unsettling poetry in lines like, "I pissed and it was black/ stars in the piss."

King-Cat Comics & Stories #65 by John Porcellino: My previous encounters with Porcellino, scattered stories here and there, have usually left me with negative impressions: the art is simplistic, the stories dull, the writing monotone. But he's such a widely respected artist that I had to give him a more in-depth shot, and indeed there is some fine work here. This issue of his long-running 'zine is dedicated to places he's lived and visited over the years, and I appreciate the gentle pacing of these explorations. Despite the simplicity of his drawings, there's often a "rightness" to his compositions, and he can often suggest great beauty with a few simple lines. I say "often" because, at other points, his art is just rough and uncommunicative. In the story "Scott County Memories," one large panel describes a park in a valley, hidden from view by farm fields. Without the text narration, the drawing itself would be indecipherable, a vague assembly of lines that could be a river, a road, a cliff, almost anything: but certainly nothing as specific as what's being described. And yet the very same story features a panel of an empty interstate running between hills, the road stretching towards the curved horizon, and it's lovely and evocative, suggesting everything with a few lithe lines. How the same artist could produce such lovely images and such inept ones with the same basic style is beyond me. His writing itself, both in the comics and especially in the accompanying text essays, is similarly uneven. He sometimes tends towards cliches ("I was not yet an adult but I knew I wasn't a child anymore") and adverb/adjective pile-ups, but he also comes up with some nice verbal imagery: "In the afternoons, in Fall, in the evening, I'd wander through my neighborhood: the weird little houses, the Church, children's bikes knocked over on front lawns... Above me the sky rolled mysterious, the Midwestern sky in Fall." These lovely bits of prose and drawings are obvious evidence that Porcellino is worth more of a look than I'd originally thought.


DerikB said...

You might want to take a look at Porcellino's recent book on Thoreau, which is one of his best. (And if you're bothered by his text, this one is all out of the texts of Thoreau.)

My review of the book:

Anonymous said...


It took me awhile to warm up to Porcellino as well. I find that his authorial voice becomes more compelling when reading a large chunk of it at once. One gets used to and even become fond of his tendency to lapse into an almost-adolescent style of "poetic" language.

His line is actually my favorite thing about his comics--I love the composition and simplicity.

I'd recommend Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man, which are his comics about his time in that profession and lead to some interesting places.

Perfect Example, about his high school days, is also quite good.

Your library might have his big collection from D&Q.

--Rob Clough