By John Campbell
John Campbell's webcomic Pictures for Sad Children has a really strange style, with a minimalist approach to artwork and a rhythm that emphasizes a constant feeling of awkwardness, often along with a crushing sense of despair. But it's also really funny! This handmade minicomic (all the elements on the front cover are glued on) collects a bunch of strips from over the past year, and while they don't all work, with some being just strange rather than poignant or funny, it's a great sample of the comic, showing off its strengths and weaknesses. How Campbell is able to wring such pathos out of his one-step-above-stick-figure characters is nearly inexplicable, but it's a perfect style for what he does, with the circular heads atop squarish bodies and simple lines for arms evoking downcast eyes, hunched posture, shame, sadness, despair, etc. Conversely, that minimalism also works to make people doing terrible things (like parents making their toddler fall down and hurt himself over and over so they can capture it perfectly with their camera) seem blase and unemotional. The pacing of the strips is effective as well, with silent panels often interspersed within scenes of dialogue for maximum awkwardness, or stretching strange monologues (like a pastor describing how God personally ensures everyone's suffering, or a airshow emcee describing the fighter jets bombing villages) out over several panels, with the lack of punctuation adding an extra bit of creepiness. It's a weird comic, but if you share Campbell's dark, deadpan sense of humor, it's pretty great.
By Raina Telgemeier
Raina Telgemeier has gained a good measure of success with her books like Smile or her adaptations of the Babysitters Club novels, and it's easy to see why, with her clean, expressive line and excellent character art. She also does talks and workshops for kids, and these two minicomics collect some memorable incidents (which is probably too strong a word for what they are; "comments" or "exchanges" would be better) from such appearances. Kids make great fodder for stories, since their innocence and openness often lead to hilarity, and that's exactly what Telgemeier demonstrates here, with her art making it all extra cute. A boy can't think of any ideas for comics unless he can use swear words, or a girl insists on being called "Ketchup". It's fun stuff, making Telgemeier's job and life look like a hell of a lot of fun.
By Erika Moen
Erika Moen's recently-ended webcomic DAR is tons of fun to read, due to her nice artwork and complete, uninhibited frankness about sexuality. She doesn't hold anything back when discussing that part of her life, and this minicomic, subtitled "An Introduction to Girl-on-girl Lovin'", benefits from that approach, working as a cute guide to lesbian sex, from anatomical explanations, to toys, to the question of whether penetration suggests the "desire for a man", to health and hygeine, and even a short bit about gender identification. It's all very informative, and presented with Moen's usual sense of humor, making it a fun read as well as an interesting one. Made in 2005, the art is a bit different from Moen's current style, so those used to her depiction of herself might be a bit weirded out, but aside from that, the anatomical diagrams, drawings of sex toys, and images of people talking about sex are all pretty great. If this is a subject about which you're curious, by all means, check the comic out.
By Rachel Bormann, Nate Powell, Joey Alison Sayers, Mark Campos, and Dalton Webb
This latest issue of Tugboat Press's anthology series features three interesting stories, although the obvious draw is the lead tale, "The Uncomfortable Gaze of Carlos Santana", by Rachel Bormann and Nate Powell. Powell is the creator of the excellent Swallow Me Whole, and he contributes more of his excellent artwork here, although the story itself is a bit obtuse and hard to follow. It sees a young woman and her father attending a Santana concert, during which she apparently has some sort of telepathic conversation with the guitarist while he is playing, desperately making up lies about why the two of them don't seem to be having a good time. It's strange, but kind of funny, and Powell's art is as wonderful as ever, with lots of shadows filling the edges of the images, some great expressiveness in faces and bodies, and that amazing glare that Santana keeps shooting the characters, living up to the title. It might not be an essential story, but it sure is entertaining.
The second story, "Pet Cat", is by Joey Alison Sayers, creator of the webcomic Thingpart, and it's amusing, certainly more so than the work that can be seen online (which seems like a less art-focused, less surreal, less interesting Perry Bible Fellowship). It details the ever-changing authorship of a lame Garfield-esque comic strip called "Oh No, Pet Cat", which starts out being drawn by Sayers herself before being handed off to a guy who turns it into a Dick Tracy-style bit of drama and violence, then is inherited by his hipness-obsessed son, the syndicate itself, and eventually aliens attempting to understand human culture, and God himself. It's cute and fairly funny, and while Sayers' simplistic style (which is like a more detailed, less effective version of John Campbell's round-headed people) might not be for everyone, it works well here. Sayers might not be the next Nicholas Gurewitch, but hopefully working with stories longer than four panels will lead to more stories like this that are enjoyable and fun.
Finally, Mark Campos and Dalton Webb present "Root Cause" a Pogo-esque story about anthropomorphic animals with Southern accents dealing with life and love. It follows a teenaged cat and rabbit as they worry about their boyfriends and consult the local wise woman for advice. While it's pleasant enough, the story is pretty nothing that will change anyone's worldview or anything, but Dalton Webb's art is quite nice, lending a good expressiveness to the animal characters and occasionally offering a pretty image of a house or forest. Enjoyable stuff; Webb is certainly a talent to watch.
That's what these sorts of small-press anthologies do well: offer interesting stories in a nice-looking package and introduce readers to new talents while providing creators with a chance to try the type of short story they might not do elsewhere. Whenever they come out, they're almost always worth picking up.
Funrama Presents: The Mutant Punks #1
By Ryan Kelly
Ryan Kelly seems to be known for serious, realistic comics like Local, so this new book, which serves as an introduction to what he plans to make a long-running self-published project, is an interesting one, taking a humorous, satirical direction and attempting to go crazy with deadpan, anarchic, apocalyptic violence. It doesn't seem to be a completely comfortable fit for Kelly, but he's certainly stretching and trying something new, and who knows where he's going to go with it. The story, such as it is, sees a group of five, well, mutant punks, weirdos with superpowers and a desire to spread chaos throughout the modern United States, eventually bringing about its downfall and taking over the world. Or something like that; the desire seems to be more to wreak havoc than anything else. There's a weird air of attempted satire hanging over everything, as one character foments a riot between pro- and anti-healthcare protestors at the Texas capitol, the team attacks the Mall of America in order to bring down Western capitalism, and they eventually confront President Obama (shrouded in shadows as he usually is in DC and Marvel comics in order to provide plausible deniability) and nearly change their ways upon hearing one of his emotionally rousing speeches. Kelly seems to be attempting to do something like Tank Girl here, an anarchic, violent bit of satire, but it seems kind of unfocused and strange, with the main male and female characters taking time out to discuss their deep love for each other and often seeming like morons who don't understand human communication whenever they encounter a non-punk person. There's also a monster character who gives people lead poisoning and a cat who does nothing but laugh and throw bombs at people (he's called Bombcat), and some stuff about interdimensional travel or something. I honestly don't know what to make of this or what Kelly is trying to do here or whether any future material will be readable, but it's at least interesting and strange, and pretty beautiful to look at, full of his great artwork. He's as great as ever at drawing cute girls, and he comes up with some pretty impressive designs and bits of action. So whatever he ends up doing, I'll be sure to check it out, even if I don't really understand it.
Tiny Kitten Teeth, Chapter One
Written by Frank Gibson
Art by Becky Driestadt
This this self-published pamphlet collects the first chapter of husband-and-wife team Frank Gibson and Becky Driestadt's webcomic of the same name, which features gorgeous painted art influenced by old-school animation and a kind of inscrutable story. It does begin to make sense once you read a few pages and get into the atmosphere and rhythm of the thing, but the art seems to be based around the design of individual images rather than cohesive, easy-to-follow layouts, so one has to do a bit of work to be able to follow it. The story concerns an anthropomorphic cat named Mewsli (who also has a pet cat of his own) moving to the big city of Owltown and falling in with the crowd there (especially a rich, charismatic owl and his dog friend), getting in adventures that involve drunken carousing that he can't remember the next day. It's fun to read, mostly because of Driestadt's gorgeous artwork, which flattens characters out into two dimensions, but then places them in brightly-colored backgrounds full of angular detail, and somehow makes it all work. She fills the pages with amazing designs, rooms decorated like the backgrounds of old cartoons (or new ones like Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends), buildings that feature more personality than most comics characters, figures that dance and swirl through the panels, forcing the eye to linger on them and suss out the crazy details of their movement. Gibson's dialogue is fun too, with characters being as identifiable by their speech patterns as their distinctive designs. And there are tons of fun ideas, like the way all the alcoholic drinks come in bottles also containing miniature boats. It's enough to make up for the somewhat obtuse story (we only learn that Mewsli is in the city to attend college near the end of the book) and the outline-free speech balloons that can make it difficult to determine who is speaking. Gibson and Driestadt definitely have a lot of talent, and given a bit more focus on storytelling, they could have something really special here. But even as it is, it's unlike anything else out there, and considering the beautiful artwork, it's worth a read in any form.
Cursed Pirate Girl #3
By Jeremy Bastian
With the ever-growing complaints about the prices of pamphlet comics, one would think that five dollars for a 36-page pamphlet would be a bit steep, but that's certainly not the case here. Jeremy Bastian crams so much detail into every page of his comics that that five bucks provide more content to the reader than any number of superhero comics pamphlets. It's mind-boggling to see Bastian's work on display, with images bursting with so much finely-detailed stuff that one can spend hours poring over it to try to identify everything. How he manages to do it is beyond comprehension, but everything is laid down on the page with exquisitely precise brush-strokes, and what's more, an overabundance of personality. Bastian's mind is apparently overflowing with crazy imagery, and it's everywhere you look on his pages. He's certainly crafted a world that allows him to utilize his flights of fancy, a fantastical sea filled with pirate ships staffed by monsters, mutants, and freaks. Scenes of the deck of a ship see things like birds wearing eye patches, a pumpkin with feet, a six-legged frog sporting tattoos and a pistol, a sheep-headed fellow wearing a hat decorated with skulls and peacock feathers, a man with a hat that bears a miniature cannon manned by insects, and all manner of characters with disproportionate heads and limbs. And that's just one panel! Every page is like this, full of filigee detailing the grain of the ship's deck, the gunk covering the pots in the galley, the main character's swirling hair, and curling ropes and octopus tentacles that often form panel borders. It seems like too much to process, but it never gets old; if anything, the rollicking story moves along like a great yarn crashing from incident to incident and seeing its heroine gamely bounce through her adventures with a preponderance of optimism and spunk. This is an amazing comic, and while it is the final issue of the miniseries, it ends on a cliffhanger, portending a second volume, so readers don't have to worry about this being the end of Bastian's seafaring adventures. If all is right with the world, he'll be able to keep making comics like this for a long time to come.