Review: 'Baltic Comics Magazine s!' #15 is a rich and eclectic mix of go-to Latvian stalwarts

A comic review article by: Justin Giampaoli

Baltic Comics Magazine is lovingly published by Latvia’s Kus! Comics (pronounced “koosh”) as a cornerstone in their ongoing endeavor to highlight the vitality of international comics creators seldom seen by most American eyes, with Eastern European comics as a particular focus. While Kus! does also publish a luxurious line of solo Mini Kus! featuring individual creators, the s! anthology typically hosts a bevy of creators united by a loose theme. This time out, 23 creators from 12 countries take on “cats” as their rallying cry. From symbolic rulers of the ancient Egyptian Empire, to highly misunderstood house pets, to de facto rulers of teh interwebs, they now take over the indie comics scene.

s! #15 is a rich and eclectic mix of go-to Latvian stalwarts such as Martins Zutis, Dace Sietina, and Ernests Klavins, and perhaps more familiar names (depending on how adventurous your reading habits are) like Michael DeForge, Warren Craghead, and Edie Fake. Like many anthologies, not all of the pieces connect due to the inherent variety of styles and the highly subjective taste of the consumer, but the overall quality is high and I’m sure the discerning buyer will find multiple entries to their liking. Were I to plunk down the $13 for this 162-page art comics orgy, the following pieces would surely stand out for me as strong justification for the entry fee.

First up, Martins Zutis opens the project with the type of free-floating imagery we imagine must mirror the disparate thoughts of cats. Zutis captures the internal monologue around the existential dilemma inhabiting just what the “meow” means. Dace Sietina counters with a sense of diagrammatic precision, attempting to classify the cat’s place in the natural world. If you get lost in the overall aesthetic of what looks like some archived Victorian print, you might miss the small bouts of wry matter-of-fact humor, like two small flies “doing it” atop a wedge of gouda.

L.L. de Mars’ bold use of color reminded me of later-period Tom Neely work, in the way seemingly stray swaths of it draw such a raw and involuntary emotional response from the reader. The creator reappropriates Felix The Cat, in the Air Pirates Funnies tradition, in a lower-third ancillary strip running along the bottom of the pages, in much the same way Neely has a tendency to recontextualize figures and objects like Popeye or Mickey Mouse’s trademark white gloves. L.L. de Mars is able to identify something called “the satire of cats,” wherein their existence dovetails interestingly with a human class system.

Leo Quievreux and Fredox contribute what I’d call an experimental collage piece, about futuristic cat agents, they themselves the subject of physical experimentation and attempts at social control. Edie Fake has a beautiful entry concerning Pumpkinhead People(?) in a style built on weary but adventurous lines. Davis Ozols depicts what feels like cats’ stream of consciousness, as one fickle thought bleeds right into the next with nary a pause, both textually and visually. The rough hewn erratic pencils are a thing of emotional beauty. I really enjoyed the collage applique of cutout airplanes overhead, which lends good depth to what would otherwise feel like 2D art.

Emmi Valve contributes one of my favorite pieces. With her heavy inks and dark rich color palette, I just love the assuredness and textural “oomph” of her lines. They feel important, no matter what the subject matter contends with. The piece isn’t about cats per se, as much as she just uses cats as a convenient entryway to what she’s really good at – the mercurial nature of human relationships. I’m a huge fan of her solo Mini Kus! All You Need Is Love, and it becomes apparent that one of the overriding themes in her work is trying to live in the moment and evolve away from the constant distraction of fleeting wants.

Reinis Petersons offers a cute series of pin-ups driven by the feline version of The Seven Deadly Sins, with a title page that feels quite French and quite cinematic. I enjoyed the irreverence of Ernests Klavins’ half Conan riff/half twisted kids cartoon come-to-life. On page 97, Pedro Franz could easily be mistaken for Aidan Koch. Franz uses a similar black and white minimalist approach that lulls you in with wispy lines, only to devastate visually with thick dark ink washes, and then exhort a sensory experience that runs the gamut from dread, to intrigue, to flirtation. It’s quite a roller-coaster ride, getting more out of black and white art than lesser artists can manage with full color.

Michael DeForge is often thought of as the current alt comics critical darling, and with the way he anchors the end of this project, it’s easy to see why that’s the prevailing sentiment. While I haven’t always personally warmed to DeForge’s work in the past (I know, I know, blasphemy!), this is the piece that finally did it. DeForge is versatile if nothing else, here employing pale pastels and a small figure scale to achieve a sense of fluidity. This mirrors the shift in social paradigms as armed cats swarm, in what feels like the dream of a post-apocalyptic travelogue gone awry, amid the waning days of the humans, at the hands of extremely misguided environmentalists who armed the damn cats in the first place. God, it’s good. I could read a 96-pager based wholly in this world. 

Like the best pieces in the book, arguably from Emmi Valve and Michael DeForge, the ethos extends outward and it becomes apparent that most of the creators decided at some point it wasn’t about cats per se, so much as it was from the POV of cats, or simply a platform to jump from and do what they wanted instead. Perhaps this was a subconscious attempt by all of them to parse the aloof nature of the creatures and get in their heads to some extent. The pieces are all just as elusive. They dart, giggle, feign love, lose interest, tumble, tease, and pounce like lions, all going their own way, for gravitas or gags, as creatively diverse as the personalities of the creatures that inspired them. If you’re looking for that unique gift for that one special person in your life, then may I suggest the paid subscription to Kus! Comics, available on their site.

 

 

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