Tiny Pages Made of Ashes 1/10/14: "The Latvians are Coming!"A comic review article by: Justin Giampaoli
Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin's small press review column
The Pernicious Kiss
For those keeping score with Latvia’s Premiere Indie Comics Publisher, this is Mini Kus! #14 in their ongoing quarter-page A4 size solo spotlight series. It’s published with financial support from the Finnish Literature Exchange, as many of the Kus! offerings are supported by similar agencies from the country of creator origin. It’s an aside, but imagine a situation where an American indie comics publisher regularly received the equivalent of National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Grants. It’s really something special, and as I said in my annual best-of list, Kus! Comics is waiting to explode as awareness grows, and they continue to publish an eclectic mix of up-and-comers juxtaposed with modern luminaries like Box Brown and Michael DeForge. In the 80’s, we used to talk about the so-called “British Invasion” of UK-based writers shifting the way audiences viewed mainstream American Comics. Well, with the globalization that’s occurred in the last couple decades, I’m ready to warn you of the mounting Latvian Invasion of Indie Comics.
The Pernicious Kiss concerns a horse-headed boy and doesn’t rely on panels so much as it does collaged pencils that sort of come and go as they please. The boy is in search of the titular kiss, but with his horsey teeth grinding on the gums of the prospective kissers involved, it’s a proposition that is thrust awkwardly and “whinnyingly” forward to the participants as well as the readers. The unique lettering is particularly noteworthy, rendered in a hand-penciled electrified scrawl. The Pernicious Kiss is a thematic detour surrounding the difficulties of finding meaningful relationships in the modern world. The soft color palette fades back from in-your-face distraction, allowing the visual grotesquerie to punch you in the senses.
Bilaletdin’s frail quivering lines add so much mystery to the story; blink and you might miss the hidden entrance to this party. With stripped down design choices, Hideous Fiesta positions a range of pertinence, from neighbors drinking ephemerally, to deciding who’s death might actually change the world. People of all ages still struggle to find themselves amid the fickle wash of public perception, and apparently Life is The Great Party. Bilaletdin gets so much movement out of such simple lines in Mini Kus! #15, with rare pops of intense color to punctuate the uncharted waters of purpose. Hideous Fiesta is a short, quick read. There’s just no time for boredom, and like the best house guests, it knows when to linger at the hint of possibility, and it knows when to slip away effortlessly into the night. It never overstays its welcome.
Mini Kus! #16 uses burnt orange mushrooms at the hands of Emelie Ostergren that merge collective conscious landmarks like Alice in Wonderland and Super Mario Brothers. It’s about a lost dog wandering an enchanted land, where there are literal star-shaped bodies hanging in the sky, and encountering some sort of Gnome of The Woods. There’s an openness and malleability of familial bonds to Runaway Dog. It creates a world that suggests you can reshape your own reality to find happiness, or structure, the new, or whatever. Just when Runaway Dog lulls you into thinking it’s all happy and cheery with its big bold bubbles and bright colors, it sticks you with a bittersweet note on the last page that hints at sadness from another perspective. I liked it. It reminded me of that lyric from that one Semisonic song “Closing Time,” that went: “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”
Estrada’s Mini Kus! #17 has the most striking acid watercolor cover. It leaps out for attention, with its big-eyed, malproportioned protagonist who has an imperfect beauty to her that’s so damn charming. There are warm reds and browns that are quite inviting, then a blue-patterned maze background that is simultaneously soothing and disorienting. That’s really the charm of Estrada’s work, that lulling sensation in emotional investment. There’s so much variety to the pieces in this issue; it functions like a solo anthology. It bounces around from stories about the voices in your head only being real if you accept them as such, a little ditty about a Casper The Friendly Succubus analogue, a skunky girl with an extreme ailment – the power of self belief and self control, a group of friends with an egalitarian hack, and the reappropriated demise of Porky Pig. That said, “Being” was the piece de resistance, ostensibly a “monster” origin story, but like all the great monster literature, the underlying motif is a basic parable about man vs. the natural world. It’s truly grand. I don’t say this too often, but if I had a chance to rework my Best of 2013 list, I could easily see this work from Ines Estrada being a strong contender.
This No Place To Stay
The quirkily titled This No Place To Stay is largely about the fleeting nature of time, of the time we’re given to exist by the powers that be. With a recessive pattern of visuals, a man enters a secret sanctuary full of would-be comforts, a café, a hospital, female caretakers, the environs a psychological construct functioning as a corollary for life itself. But, as is the case in real life, there are so many external pressures vying for our attention that there often isn’t time to stop and simply enjoy what you’re doing in the moment. The man can’t even sit and enjoy a simple pleasure like a cup of coffee before he’s shooed away because We’re Closing! You’re Not Allowed!! There Are Always Other Things To Do!!! German artist Michael Jordan operates with a somber palette, it’s all burnt yellows, uncomfortable browns, and even some sickly greens. These muted colors let us focus on details, like the background clocks. It’s interesting that when the man does get a moment’s rest (for one solitary panel!) to sit and try to enjoy his coffee, the face of the clock is blank, sans time. But, during most of the scenes, time is always something he’s consciously aware of, it’s always ticking away, like the series of clocks that disappear on the horizon, fading into the distance as the minutes noticeably pass on their faces. It’s a reminder that we’re basically always dying. The only real color to speak of is a burst of passionate purple toward the end, suggesting some sort of release, a final respite, perhaps freedom from the mortal coil.
For Mini Kus! #19, the creator known only as Berliac quickly invests us in the tail end of a failing relationship. Though we only really see one side of the drama unfolding, it’s clear that there’s contention between career and love. The protagonist is pushed toward his job, a rare opportunity to track jaguars as an endangered species. It’s easy to see why when we later behold the undulating beauty of a two-page jungle scene. It’s a place where cascading canopies of trees meld seamlessly into rivers dumping into waterfalls which are graced by majestic birds in flight. Artistically, there’s a lot going on with Berliac’s ability. The static shots are gorgeous, but there’s also creative use of outlines, shadows, and negative space. Combined with the simulation of night vision, it all gives an otherworldly feel to the foreign nature of the Amazon Rainforest. Like Captain Willard venturing further and further up-river, the familiar is continually stripped away, as the lettering draws us into cursive journal entries and native language glyphs, and the myth of “The Negative Jaguar” reveals itself. It’s an animal whose spots glow, rather than being black, while the rest of the creature fades into the night(marish) background. There’s a very smartly written sequence with a hunter, one who our protagonist initially mistakes for an animal, which creates a near-death experience. This incident seems to push the protagonist back to his estranged wife, yet it is too late to save that relationship. It’s a hard truth that people can simply vanish from our lives with scant traces, but they do seem to take a little piece of our soul with them when they do, as the invented Amazonian Myth suggests.
(Jean de Wet)
Jean de Wet renders Mini Kus! #20 without a single word of dialogue or text of any kind, and the result is about as perfect a comic as you can get. With a shaky blue line and an expertly built panorama experience, we’re spirited away to a mountainous volcanic crater valley and the community contained within. The panorama is chopped up here to accommodate the pages, but you can easily imagine the pages all laid out side by side, one seamlessly connecting to the next. We’re not even really sure if the events of this book are taking place on planet Earth or an alt sci-fi setting, but it doesn’t matter. There are universal truths in these scenes of people in the community anticipating, reacting to, and parsing meaning from some sort of impending cosmic event in the sky. You can read into this either simple contemplation, a deepening mystery, or even a bold alt creation myth, investing as little or as much thought and emotion in the work as you’re comfortable with. Crater Lake is versatile in that manner, relying on the reader’s imagination and sense of belief as much as showcasing the same stuff from the creator. Jean de Wet plays with time as a linear construct, our understanding of things occurring simultaneously must be edited sequentially for our own consumption on the page. Crater Lake is contemplative, with a subdued sense of adventure to the narrative engagement, and questions the amount of mystery we allow into our daily lives through a hypnotic sequential art sojourn. It’s one of the best mini-comics I’ve read in a long time.
Jungle Night, that’s Mini Kus! #21 for those keeping track, opens with Lili explaining that she got herself intentionally lost in the jungle, and then hits rewind for the majority of the book in order to explain the rationale behind her heterogenous decision. For me, Gasiorowska’s art works best at the smaller figure scale, like the little village embedded in the full-page jungle next to a waterfall. Lili weaves the reader through an interesting jungle culture who reveres their ancestry with the strange traditions of Jungle Night. In an effort to avoid the banal group-think of the tradition, she initially makes a pact with a group of school friends to do their own thing with peanut vodka(!) and organic moss slides. While it’s a little rebellious, Lili discovers that her group is still a group, and her desire to express a greater degree of individualism takes over. Lili reminds us of an important social truth by the end, that it’s normal to want to feel alone occasionally, to withdraw in order to appreciate beauty or to discover how we relate to the world around us. That’s not depression. That’s actually ok. Jungle Night is a fun book, something I’d hand a young adult comic book aficionado as an example of pro-individualism in an affable style of artistry.
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