The history textbook might seem like an odd choice to adapt to a zine format. On a shelf full of comics, perzines, and essays, you wouldn’t really expect to find a history of modern Iran or the Nez Perce Indians. J Gerlach’s Simple History series (Microcosm), however, aims to change that. Each edition chronicles a decisive moment or movement in world history, condensing a story to the 50-page chapbook format. These books provide an insightful and informative antidote to the bulky historical tome usually found at schools or libraries. Additionally, the presentation breaks significantly with the mainstream idea of “history;” a sort of micro-People’s History of the United States, Gerlach looks at these events with a leftist, anti-imperialist, and sharply critical approach that’s in contrast to many established historical interpretations.
For a purported personal zine, Al Burian’s Burn Collector is strangely outward-looking. His philosophical musings on expat culture, life in Berlin, punk rock, and other topics are based on his own experiences, but they aren’t just stories. Burian raises plenty of questions without answering them, putting his reader in a position to consider these everyday ideas in a new light. His essays are a fine counterpoint to the legions of navel-gazing zinesters that populate the perzine genre in that they aren’t meant to chronicle his life, but instead connect it with larger social and existential problems.
When writers or readers think of literary formats, the lowly novella is often overlooked or forgotten. Usually between 20,000 and 40,000 words, the novella occupies an awkward space between short story and novel, but it offers opportunities for characterization and conciseness that longer or shorter forms don’t. Adam Gnade writes both novellas and novels, and his shorter works stand apart as fascinating experiments in an unusual media form.
Hey Hey Lonesome and The Heat and the Hot Earth were published in 2011 and share a lot in terms of structure and characterization. Both follow a group of teens (and one older character) in Southern California as they navigate relationships and try to find their place in an amorphous social order. Lonesome follows the paths of several characters as they move toward a house party; they move between astonishingly crude and aloof dialogue and highly emotional introspection. Its characters, for the most part, balance outer cool and inner turmoil. Hot Earth is more dynamic and simpler in structure; punctuated by a longing letter and a sneering Tumblr post from two characters, it reflects the callousness and romanticism of the modern teen.
The two novellas are connected through recurring characters and themes, and Gnade notes that he ultimately wants to link these stories with his longer novel, Hymn California, and another novella. Gnade says, “The whole universe of my characters is mapped out in a little three-inch-thick notebook. It’s like a geometric cube of paper. I’m just following that map until it’s done.” The connectedness of the stories gives the novellas a feeling not unlike those big ensemble teen comedies of the ’80s and ’90s; characters move in and out of each other’s orbits, brushing against each other as they go.
Alec Longstreth: Phase 7
The personal zine or “perzine” genre is one of the most popular in independent publishing (we’ve covered a few here, like EmiTown and King-Cat). It can be hard to distinguish yourself in such a crowded field, but Alec Longstreth’s Phase 7 stands out. Published by the author since 2002, Phase 7 is a series of minicomics, most recently alternating between five-issue adventure story “Basewood” and sketchbook issues on the artist’s life. It’s personal, funny, and, incredibly, quite original.
Despite its most recent form, Phase 7 is much more than “Basewood” and even departs frequently from personal stories. As Longstreth says, “The subject matter of each issue of Phase 7 varies widely, depending on what kind of stories I want to tell. I’ve done auto-bio, attempts at serious fiction, humor, comics essays, stick-figure diary comics, and sketchbook issues.” Variety is the key to Longstreth’s longevity, but it also seems like the outgrowth of a natural impulse to continue experimenting and learning.
Issue #16 in particular covers Longstreth’s years in New York, struggling to make a living and forget old loves while pursuing new ones. He also includes plenty of absurd and charming interactions with New Yorkers on the subway or in parks. Random denizens of the city approach him to offer encouragement on his drawing, or simply to yell at him. We see Longstreth at work, out with friends, on dates, and in a wide variety of ways, adjusting to life in New York.
It seems that all we hear about these days is how much trouble the print-publishing industry is in. With many major publications moving online (or at least developing a much stronger online presence), it seems natural to worry that smaller (and less wealthy) works like zines are going to have to adapt or die off. The zine-like literary journal The Toucan is at least a partial proof that print volumes can survive (and maybe the Internet is their salvation).
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for submissions-based literary magazines. It’s nice to think that in the digital age (and the increasingly conglomerate-based publishing industry of today) that some people are still painstakingly choosing and collecting short stories and poems from aspiring authors and publishing them in zine form. Printed work has a way of feeling more personal, and when your reading material contains a variety of poems and stories by mostly anonymous individuals, the personal touch can be crucial. The Toucan retains this touch of intimacy, but the quality and variety of work is especially surprising in this little unassuming volume.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Vain 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’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.
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.