Jason Martin: Papercutter #17 (Tugboat, 2011)
There are plenty of prose and poetry journals in the world — we profiled one just a few weeks ago — but what about a comics journal? Award-winning anthology series Papercutter is just such a publication; this ongoing series is “dedicated to showcasing the best young, underexposed, and emerging comic-book artists.” Published quarterly by Tugboat Press in slim black-and-white volumes, the Portland-based zine has just released its 17th issue of original comics stories.
Jason Martin provides the seven autobiographical stories for this issue, each illustrated by a different artist. Using a different artist for each story seems a bit unorthodox, but the effect is rewarding; a cohesive thread of thought runs through the book, but the art shifts in style and medium with each artist. Each story takes on a slightly different tone depending on the type of art used in it. Stories set earlier in Martin’s childhood have looser, more cartoon-ish art, while the college-era tales use tight pen-and-ink strokes.
Martin opens with a childhood story of his own beginnings in comic-book writing, in the affecting “The Weeper.” He connects his early days of writing Batman stories with a personal “self-control” problem at school. Martin’s shifts between his real life and the life of his character, “The Weeper,” are well handled, as is his realization that he roots for his “villainous” analogue more than for Batman. He writes about missing out on childhood mainstay Nickelodeon, and about seeing a pretty girl singing in her car at a streetlight. The latter story, “Streetlight,” is only six panels long, but the dynamic art really pops, and a relatable sense of after-school camaraderie says everything about this memory for Martin.
“Scenes from the Fire” is the longest and most interesting of the tales. The story describes a house fire in the author’s college years and really packs an emotional punch; there’s hopelessness in the face of totally unanticipated danger, college students perhaps too young to deal with something as scary as a house fire, and the aftermath of an event that, though not physically violent, has shaken our writer to the core. Martin is brutally honest in showing his attempts to cope with the fire and, afterwards, his realization that he can’t deal with it. Details, like Martin’s reaction to the smell and even mention of fire, will ring true for anyone who has had to deal with a trauma like his. The story, however, ends on a hopeful note of emotional recovery.
Artist Calvin Wong provides some innovative art for “Scenes”; his interest in experimentation appears in the way smoke wreathes around all of the panels on a page, or a character is seen through the fish eye of a front-door peephole. Even the opening page plays with the usual format of a comic; three panels show our protagonists being mistaken for homeless people in a café, before showing the burnt-out shell of their house looming behind and around the final panel with the note, “which I guess we were.” The juxtaposition is heartbreaking and surprising.
Three shorter stories close out the issue. “Avo” recalls a touching visit from Martin’s aging grandfather, while “Meditations” shows a recommendation from a stranger on a John Coltrane album. Finally, “The Weaving of a Dream” returns to childhood with a grade-school visit from a local author. Small moments give these stories an authenticity for which all personal comics should strive — such as Martin saying of his grandfather’s visit, “It was the first time he’d recognized me in years”; or the author in the final story saying that she added blood to a painting because she wanted to be a part of it, and a concerned teacher jumping in with, “But you shouldn’t try that at home!”
Basing a whole issue around one writer’s stories may stray from the usual purpose of an anthology, but Papercutter seems to have no problem with experimentation. Though most of its earlier issues have been organized more or less like a traditional anthology or journal, others feature “parallel stories” from different authors or stories structured around a certain theme. Papercutter provides an important service to young comics writers — after all, don’t most prose and poetry writers start their careers by submitting to journals? The other result, however, is a beautiful zine collecting a lot of great stories.