Tiny Pages Made of Ashes 8/20/2013: Vanguards and Alternatives

A comic review article by: Daniel Elkin, Kelvin Green, Jason Sacks

Tiny Pages Made of Ashes

Comics Bulletin's small press column returns after too long of an absence.

Vanguard #3

(Dirk van Dom/Various)

3.5 stars

Has it really been almost a year since the last issue of Dirk van Dom's anthology comic? Crikey. Perhaps that's why there's something a little dissatisfying about this third issue, as even the best ongoing comic strip is going to struggle to maintain momentum with such long times between episodes.

"Atomic Call" is perhaps the biggest casualty of this unfortunate timing as its action movie stylings don't work as well as they could in this format. We get exploding buildings, exploding cars, a bit of gunplay, helicopters, and someone getting hit in the face with a motorbike, and it's all well-staged stuff -- I remember reading an article about how vehicle-based action scenes were difficult to pull off in comics and that's why something like Gunsmith Cats is so special, but artist David Blankley does a good job here -- but it is only a few seconds of action spread across a handful of pages and it'll be a couple of months at best before we get to see what happens in the next six seconds. I imagine "Atomic Call" will read well in a collected edition but it's struggling here, and introducing a spin off in "S.N.A." -- intriguing as it is -- is perhaps only exacerbating the problem.
"Mammoth Jack" has similar narrative problems but it fares a bit better as it is so distinctive; I have lost track of the story a bit between issues but this tale of a young girl and her homicidal mutant donkey is so bonkers that it doesn't really matter. Joyful disbelief is perhaps the best way to describe the experience of reading this very odd strip and that's not something that's diminished by the slow publishing schedule. It's inventive and fun, albeit sometimes unpleasant in a grindhouse fashion, although the more ill-judged tonal shifts of the previous episode have been avoided this time.
"Harry Kane Will See Her Safely Home" is also somewhat loopy -- chucking an action movie star back through time to Japan's past where he meets a mysterious woman talking in tongues, finds a precious map, and encounters samurai wielding laser swords -- but is a bit more light-hearted, in part due to the lack of killer equids but also due to Jim Cameron's art. It's a cartoony, almost deformed look, reminiscent in some ways of "Love is..." and is something of a clash with the art styles used elsewhere in the anthology; even so Cameron's storytelling is strong and the bold art lends the tale a certain energy that may not have been conveyed as well with a more realistic approach. It's a charming strip that I could see being adapted into a Jackie Chan film and I'm keen to see more of Harry Kane in Vanguard #4.


Dirk Van Dom's anthology has no paucity of invention and good ideas but the format and publishing schedule works against its success to an extent. I would be more than happy to read the individual strips in longer or more frequent instalments but a scattering of pages every few months is somewhat dissatisfying. That said, asking for more or more frequent Vanguard is probably unrealistic given the pressures of independent publishing and the format should not detract from the quality of the strips, so it's a difficult one to score.
-Kelvin Green
Find out more about Vanguard on their Blogspot.

It's Not About That

(Bartosz Sztybor/Piotr Nowacki)

A few weeks ago, a number of Comics Bulletin writers got into a debate about why so many critical analyses of comics fail to talk about art. As we discussed this, Keith Silva brought up the so-called "silent issue", specifically Larry Hama's G.I. Joe #21, as an example of visual storytelling. Silva's observation made me think of Powers #31, the famous monkey fucking issue from Bendis and Oeming.  While this is not necessarily a "silent issue," as there are all sorts of  Grunnk's and Hurugh's and whatnot, none of these "words" convey any meaning. Yet Powers #31, like G.I. Joe #21, is an intensive narrative. Panel to panel, it explores themes like the struggle for power, the intricacies of intimacy, and the nature of community. The reader makes the connections between art and idea through juxtaposition and closure.

The "silent issue" can be a powerful storytelling device as it engages readers on an even higher level in order to convey narrative. It trusts the reader to understand not only the conventions of the sequential art form, but also trust him or her to have enough background knowledge in order to put the pieces together. The emotional content of the story comes from the reader, as it were, it is the artists who provide the road map to those feelings.

But like any map, if it is poorly executed, the traveler will get terribly, terribly lost.

It's Not About That

I write all this as a lead in to a review of Polish creators Piotr Nowacki and Bartosz Sztybor's comic It's Not About That because it, too, is a silent narrative, and more importantly, because using it as a map I got a bit lost.

Ostensibly, this is a book about a robot, Robot 150186, who does the same thing every day. He makes meals for its "family", he waters the garden, cleans the house, trims the hedges, and fixes things when they break. Robot 150186 is, for all extents and purposes, the prototypical science-fiction trope, the robot maid/butler. The story focuses on the days before Robot 150186's retirement (he's planning on a tropical island location). I'll let the solicitation for this book fill in the rest:

"But if suddenly something changed, something went wrong, and everything else would turn out to be a lie? What then would 150186 do to save his boring everyday life?"

So yea, it's that kind of story.

It's Not About That

A "silent issue" requires that the creators give the reader enough information to understand the characters, understand their motivation, and understand the conflict. It's Not About That doesn't do a particularly good job of this. It's not necessarily confusing – I could follow the "story" for the most part  -- it just didn't add up to anything interesting. Nowacki's art is cute and serviceable, but for a narrative of this sort, it needs to be more than that. The onus is on the artist to convey the writer's intent, and in this case, there seems to have been a bit of a disconnect.  Plus, given the nature of what happens in the story, I'm not sure who the audience is for this book. The art points to an all-ages sensibility, but some of the story, a young boy's drowning death in particular, may not be appropriate for children.

It's Not About That

Ultimately, Nowacki and Sztybor have spent a good deal of time and passion creating this map (you get the sense that they are passionate about their creation), but really this means nothing if I don't end up where they wanted me to go.

- Daniel Elkin

You can order It's Not About That here.

Alternative Comics #4


4 stars

Alternative Comics is the flagship collection from the small-press publisher of the same name. This collection features short strips from some of the finest and best-known indie-minded cartoonists working today –with material by people like James Kochalka, Noah Van Sciver, Sam Henderson and David Lasky sitting next to comics by creators who were new to me, like Andy Schubert, Allison Cole and Sam Alden.

Alternative Comics #4

That's pretty much the ideal way to set up an anthology comic. It's smart to include a group of well-known artists who are doing some of their best material along with a group of lesser-known creators who are also are producing good work.

Thus we get a couple of wonderful strips by James Kochalka (including a surprisingly delightful "Fancy Froglin" piece that has a delightfully kind simplicity) next to a cleverly creative story by Alex Schubert that uses subverts all kinds of text, page design and storytelling tropes in a funny, creative and intriguing manner.

Alternative Comics #4

If this is a review on Comics Bulletin, we can't neglect Noah Van Sciver because we're such big fans of his comics. Van Sciver presents a typically outstanding two-pager here about an arrogant cartoonist who looks down on ordinary people, gets blowjobs in alleyways and makes funny predictions about the future – all drawn with Van Sciver's customary shaky line and diffident, off-putting approach.

We get several quite sincere short comics in this compilation alongside a few really snotty strips.

Alternative Comicss #4

On the sweet side, Allison Cole's "Lost and Found" is a mostly wordless strip about a lost cat, illustrated in a style that is both surreal and delightful. And Sam Alden's two-pager is a beautifully created piece (reminiscent of Craig Thompson's style) that's an almost poetic reflection on the changes that bring on a person.

On the snotty side, Andy Ristaino's "Frothy Beveraged Man" recasts Kool-Aid Man as an asshole who buys beer for underage kids and haunts Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, drawn in a charmingly loose, almost animated style. Meanwhile, Sam Henderson turns in his customary obnoxious collection of insanely awful comics.

Alternative Comics #4

This is a very strong anthology comic – and I didn't mention many of the other terrific stories in this comic, including a rare jam comic by Craig Thompson and Theo Ellsworth. This is an almost perfect compilation- an ideal flagship for any comics line.

- Jason Sacks

For more information on this comic, visit Alternative Comics's website

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