Zine Scene: Shuteye

Shuteye #6Sarah Becan: Shuteye (Shortpants Press, 9/26/11)

Sarah Becan’s comic book series Shuteye is, appropriately enough, about dreams. In the dream world of the comic book, logic becomes symbolic, coincidences become fateful, and characters learn about themselves in surprising ways. Readers are teased as well; strange things happen in comic books all the time, so how are we to know that this isn’t real? For Becan, the dream state becomes a narrative and stylistic testing ground.

Becan published the first issue of Shuteye in 2005, when her brother had been trying to get some of his stories published. Instead, Becan transformed them into comic narratives, and the first two issues of Shuteye were born. Several more issues followed, each with a silk-screened cover and zine-style binding. The final issue was completed in 2011.

In Shuteye’s sixth and final issue, The Fetch, overworked waiter and boyfriend Jan finds an answer to all of his problems in a mysterious doppelganger. After complaining of a bizarre dream in which his phone call to his mother was answered by Jan himself, Jan’s dream plays out exactly in a Christmas-themed miracle that allows him to be with his mother and girlfriend for the holiday. Soon, the two Jans have a system worked out to their mutual benefit (with doppelganger Jan doing most of the chores), and everything seems fine – until Jan’s girlfriend learns the truth. A surprisingly poignant ending rounds out an entirely unexpected and interesting narrative.

Anders Nilsen: Big Questions

Zine Scene: Big Questions

Anders Nilsen: Big QuestionsAnders Nilsen: Big Questions (Drawn & Quarterly, 8/16/11)

Big Questions is a pretty self-explanatory title for the “magnum opus” of Chicago-based writer Anders Nilsen. The story he chooses to tell in a collected 600 pages of comics and writing is indeed about the big questions. But what are those big questions? Nilsen says, “The usual, I suppose: life, death, foundations of human knowledge, the existence of god, stuff like that. Also: what are the best kinds of doughnuts, and whose fault is it when the giant egg explodes?”

All joking aside, Big Questions is nothing at which to sniff. After releasing 15 issues in zine form over the course of a decade, Nilsen and Drawn & Quarterly published a gift-quality collected edition in 2011. That’s not bad for something that started so small; as Nilsen puts it, “The book started with me just playing around in my sketchbooks, doing little gag strips about birds eating seeds and talking about things that were a little bigger than they could really wrap their heads around.” In the end, however, it became a lot more. Big Questions has been an enormous project for Nilsen and is an engrossing read for comic lovers.

Anders Nilsen: Big Questions

Jason Martin: Papercutter #17

Zine Scene: Papercutter #17

Jason Martin: Papercutter #17Jason 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.

Seymour Chwast: The Canterbury Tales

Zine Scene: The Canterbury Tales

Seymour Chwast: The Canterbury TalesSeymour ChwastThe Canterbury Tales (Bloomsbury, 8/30/11)

Even English nerds have trouble with The Canterbury Tales (and this coming from a self-proclaimed English nerd). Long, famously unfinished, written in archaic English, and littered with centuries-old humor, Chaucer’s classic is dense and difficult to understand. There is hope, however! Readers who struggled through Chaucer’s original will love Seymour Chwast’s witty and stylish take on the story. This new offering from the author of the Divine Comedy graphic novel revisits and revises the Middle English tome and makes it much more enjoyable.

The graphic-novel edition’s brevity gives it the edge over Chaucer, not to mention its translation into modern English. Pages of prose are reduced to captions and dry dialogue, while the action is streamlined and organized into neat panel formulations. “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” is one of many short and to-the-point chapters in the story (“I met the first of my five husbands when I was twelve. They were mostly gentlemen. Didn’t God say to go forth and multiply?”).

Chwast condenses the narrative until he finds a sort of absurdist humor in minimalism — something that should be even funnier for fans of the original. However, first-time readers will be glad to know that even when the stories lose some of their impact (or sense) in translation, the essence of the story survives.

Zine Scene: Vain

Zine Scene: Vain

Vain Issue 10Vain Magazine: Issue 10 (Fall 2011)

When you see it on a bookstore shelf, Vain immediately stands out. Small, unassuming, and minimalist, the journal looks like something from another era among all the glossy, high-color publications that surround it. The two hand-bound paper volumes, held together by a paper strip with just the name and issue number on it, are intriguing in their blankness. There’s no hint of what’s inside, only an impression of refreshingly clean style. Curiosity compelled me to purchase it, but what kept me reading was the satisfaction that a classy and independent literary journal exists despite the virtual monopoly of highbrow imprints in the field.

Since 2007, Tia Orian and a team of volunteers have published Vain twice a year. With a mixture of artwork, photography, poetry, music, and even a short story or two, the journal is like a window into another world. After the virtual death of the publishing slush pile and an increasingly stratified arts industry, literary journals are somewhat out of vogue. Yes, they still exist, but as a part of arts and leisure magazines, or as a sort of trade publication for writers and artists themselves. It’s much rarer, in other words, for a layperson to pick up a literary journal today than it was 50 years ago. It’s even rarer to see a journal accepting submissions from just about anyone.

As a result, Vain Issue 10 was a pleasant surprise. I devoured it in one sitting, feeling a bit like I was unearthing literary treasure. Stephen North’s “The Psychic Receptionist” was a particularly fascinating read, as were JR Solonche’s poems. Photography and prints are interspersed throughout. An interview with stop-motion filmmaker Jess Bayliss and a music playlist push the boundaries of the format but fit in surprisingly well.

David Toop

Zine Scene: Sinister Resonance

David Toop: Sinister ResonanceDavid Toop: Sinister Resonance (Continuum, 6/24/11)

David Toop’s new book, Sinister Resonance, looks at the ubiquity and power of sound and silence in our lives, even if we rarely take note of it. What is it about a sudden noise in a darkened house, a lull in a conversation, or eavesdropping that quickens our pulse and plays on our emotions? This musician-writer sets out to enrich our understanding of what sound means in a primal, emotional sense.

Toop explains sound as something uncanny, even eerie, and generally of uncertain source. Sound is like a ghost — intangible, always just out of reach, impossible to pin down, a “present absence” or “absent presence,” tied to emotion and memory, uniting past and present. It’s an unconventional thesis, and his approach to the study of silence is appropriately academic, even methodical.

However, his evidence follows the interdisciplinary approach of media studies; Toop looks at every kind of book, film, and artwork imaginable and supports his claim with examples spanning two centuries.  Nothing is off-limits, from Sigmund Freud and Old Masters to creaky old houses. In fact, it’s Freud’s theory of the uncanny that gets the most attention, in connecting our emotional response with the sensual data of sound. Sounds and silence possess the power to unnerve us, and their sudden appearance (or absence) is often eerie.

Craig Thompson: Habibi

Zine Scene: Habibi

Craig Thompson: HabibiCraig Thompson: Habibi (Pantheon, 9/20/11)

Can love survive great hardship through words and memory alone?

In Habibi — where community can be explained in the recurrence of one myth among many people, where stories and art become protection for the downtrodden, and where people can be bought, sold, and traded as easily as water — Craig Thompson explores the possibility of love and connection in a failed state. “Habibi” is Arabic for “my beloved,” but what does that mean when you can’t control your own fate, much less that of your beloved?

Thompson’s previous novel, Blankets, explored his own coming of age (and first experience of freedom and love) against the backdrop of a harsh and forbidding religious community. A lyrical look at the complex nature of community and survival through love, Blankets also explored the role of religious belief in myth-making. Habibi revisits similar territory, transporting the narrative to the Arabic world while still dealing with similar issues of freedom and bondage, love found in the strangest places, and the magical qualities of words and memory.

Habibi follows Dodola, a girl sold into slavery at a young age, and Zam, the younger boy she meets in captivity. They grow up together as friends despite their differences, endure separation and changes (both of their own making and forced on them), and eventually carve out a life in a world of slavery and uncaring governments. Although they must make hard choices in order to survive, Dodola and Zam remain connected, even in the face of lengthy physical separation.

Anarchist Bike Rally: Confidential Mad Libs

Zine Scene: Anarchist Bicycle Rally: Confidential Mad Libs

Anarchist Bike Rally: Confidential Mad LibsJoe BielAnarchist Bicycle Rally: Confidential Mad Libs (Cantankerous Titles, 2011)

Many bicycle enthusiasts (and city dwellers) will likely be familiar with Critical Mass. Groups of cyclists ride through urban areas in order to slow traffic and promote cycling over use of automobiles, often using disruption to increase awareness of their cause. Though often a minor inconvenience to some motorists (thus reinforcing the cyclists’ pro-bike message), Critical Mass can be, to hear Anarchist Bike Rally: Confidential Mad Libs tell it, nothing less than a scourge for cops.

Detailing the history of Portland’s Critical Mass movement through 12 years of internal police documents, Anarchist Bike Rally shows the police department’s annoyance, anger, and finally acceptance and cooperation with Critical Mass.

Beginning with documents dating from 1993, Anarchist Bike Rally follows the Portland police as they sit in on Critical Mass meetings, try to predict routes, issue citations, arrest the more disorderly members of the movement, and spend thousands of dollars of police resources to contain groups that, in early years, rarely exceeded 30 participants. Detailed reports follow a narrative that should be familiar to anyone who has taken part in a political action; police confusion gives way to monitoring, attempts to minimize the impact on other citizens, and later communication and cooperation with the activists.

Critical Mass presents a challenge for these cops, however, in that it purposely lacks a clear leader, making the rides that much harder to manage. Trial and error characterizes the police response until the early 2000s, when permitted rides became more common. To make matters worse, early reports show that police seemed to barely recognize the rides as a political statement, instead treating them as unusually organized acts of hooliganism. The riders easily use police confusion to their benefit, avoiding their chaperones and increasing visibility of the rides.

Kagan McLeod: Infinite Kung Fu

Zine Scene: Infinite Kung Fu

Kagan McLeod: Infinite Kung FuKagan McLeodInfinite Kung Fu (Top Shelf, 9/13/11)

At first glance, Kagan McLeod’s Infinite Kung Fu would seem to have limited appeal. Despite inspiring near-religious devotion in its fans, martial-arts movies have been marginalized, commercialized, and derided in popular culture as a sort of kitschy guilty pleasure. Attempts have been made to revive the genre, most notably in anime, but Infinite Kung Fu may be the first graphic novel to stand a decent chance of creating new interest in a niche genre.

Innovative and smart, Infinite Kung Fu pays homage to classic elements of martial-arts films, from wise masters to wise-ass students, but it manages to do away with the clunky dialogue and feel of Asian exploitation that have come to dominate many viewers’ perspectives on kung fu. Instead, McLeod returns to the kung-fu story as a quasi-mystical battle between good and evil. As with the Kill Bill films, whose own master, Gordon Liu, provides a foreword, Infinite Kung Fu is a loving tribute and a partial reinvention.

McLeod, a longtime fan of kung-fu films, populates his story with familiar archetypes that nonetheless remain stylish and cool. The story begins with the eight Immortals, grand kung-fu masters who have gained superpowers, and their fight against the rapidly increasing legions of zombies on Earth. Each of the Immortals’ students has turned to dark magic, with the exception of Moog Joogular, a sort of Isaac Hayes/Jimi Hendrix mash-up with a sword.

With the help of Moog and his assistant, Thursday Thoroughgood, the leader of the Immortals trains a young army deserter in the ways of kung fu. Along the way, he must learn fighting techniques from animals, defeat a ghostly emperor, and figure out the secret of the undead’s resurgence.

Seymour Chwast: Divine Comedy

Zine Scene: Divine Comedy

Seymour Chwast: Divine ComedySeymour Chwast: Divine Comedy (Bloomsbury, 9/2010)

What happens when you drop a noir hero into a 14th Century Italian epic?  Seymour Chwast’s stylish and intriguing graphic-novel version of Dante‘s Divine Comedy provides an answer. Chwast combines dynamic illustration and easily understandable prose to give the epic a fresh new look and an unlikely appeal for non-academic readers. Those of us uninterested in centuries-old religious poetry will be delighted, but readers familiar with the original will find even more to love.

Chwast’s story closely follows Dante’s original epic, in some respects more than others. His Dante, imagined here as a noir detective, joins guide Virgil to discover the perils of the underworld, the meaning of God’s justice, and, in this case, lots of flappers. The author, now sporting a trenchcoat and smoking an ever-present pipe, regards the horrors of hell with all the hard-boiled eyes of a Dashiell Hammett hero, explaining away punishments with all of the original Dante’s stoic resolve.


Zine Scene: EmiTown

EmiTownEmi Lenox: EmiTown (Image, 1/11/11)

Emi Lenox’s EmiTown will win your heart with the power of whimsical doodles and cat armies. Needless to say, it is not your ordinary autobiographical comic, and Lenox is not your ordinary cartoonist. Many writers would be content to tell funny anecdotes, chronicle individual episodes in their lives, and tell linear stories, but Lenox has instead crafted a “sketch diary.” Each day, she draws a few doodles about how she’s feeling, fun or embarrassing things that happened to her, rent worries, grocery lists, and, yes, love — in an adorably off-kilter style. The diary is also a sort of testing ground for new drawing styles, metaphors, and alter egos, leading to an engrossing portrait of the artist-in-progress.

Lenox’s daily comics, which seem a bit thin as individual stories, instead build patterns, invite us into Emi’s life, and, taken together, present the strange world of “EmiTown,” where the optimistic white-heart and pessimistic black-heart Emi battle for control of her self-esteem, where coffee addiction becomes an increasingly manic state of mind, and where we get to know a funny, sensitive, and damn good cartoonist.


Pop Sculpture

Zine Scene: Pop Sculpture

Tim Bruckner, Zach Oat, and Rubén Procopio: Pop SculptureTim Bruckner, Zach Oat, and Rubén Procopio: Pop Sculpture (Watson-Guptill, 10/19/10)

Action figures, to most of the world, are toys. To some fans or collectors, they’re a curio or a commodity, like baseball cards or commemorative plates. For the authors of Pop Sculpture, however, they are so much more. Pop Sculpture is a guide for the confused and curious, meant to inspire an interest in making your own designs, but it is also an argument that action figures are not toys, not commodities, but art.

Tim Bruckner, Zach Oat, and Rubén Procopio worked with Disney and DC Direct to reveal the secrets of designing, creating, and selling your own action figures (not dolls, they insist). Although Pop Sculpture is, first and foremost, a practical guide for the career-minded sculptor (and a great asset for those readers), it’s a treat for the casual collector or fan as well. As a degraded and commercialized art form, figure-making is rarely explored and explained in as much depth as it is here. The curtain is drawn back, and the process is revealed to be far more difficult than it previously seemed.

Pop Sculpture details the lengthy process of making action figures through the examples of a statuette-style Athena and a more familiar, pose-able Thor figure. Design and molding are described in easy-to-understand terms, with diagrams, cut doodles, anecdotes from the authors, and tips from pros along the way. Although the focus is mostly on comic-book characters and superheroes, you get the feeling that these techniques could be applied to a variety of models (in fact, some of the authors’ examples feature original characters with a more high-art bent).