Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comic Bulletin’s Small Press Review Column
BLADES & LAZERS
By Benjamin Marra
Published by Sacred Prism
While not every work in his catalogue falls under this particular umbrella, many of Benjamin Marra’s works are simplistic in their approach conveying Action-Adventure of a very particular U.S. of A. flavor. Shit blows up, terrorists are maimed, people are fucked. Repeat, ad nauseam, until you reach the final page (often a splash page, naturally) with the protagonist holding a smoking bazooka, parsing through debris until they ultimately see the light, the sunrise, the otherside. It’s gleaming, beautiful, inviting of another world that will never be attained, because even when you close the book and set it down, the battle continues. The war rages on in different adventures in your head, because who wouldn’t continue imagining the Further Adventures of Another Marra Creation.
It was the last day of Small Press Expo when I found Blades & Lazers, mere hours removed from reviewing the first day’s bank statement. That’s when I promised myself, “Joe, you’re not spending another goddamn dime here.” As I passed a few Sacred Prism offerings at SPX, the oversized, pink-and-navy printing of Marra’s collected swords-in-space zines was too good to leave behind. Having only recently experienced Marra’s work for the first time after acquiring Terror Assaulter: O.M.W.O.T., I realized something many others probably have once they put his books down: “What the fuck am I doing with my life? I need to read more Marra comics.”
Blades & Lazers functions much like how an adolescent boy plays with his action figures at night when it’s too late for his friends to come over to play a D&D campaign. The titular characters are paid to hunt monsters and wizards, both of which they dispatch rather handily in neon glory. At surface level it’s as simple as its title: one brother handles the lasers while the other handles the blades; one speaks with superlative emphasis while the other remains mute; one ferociously dispatches his enemies while the other does so with finesse and cool. Future and past? New School versus Old? Fuck it, you decide. And while you do, they’ll be over there—BLOWING SHIT UP.
These dichotomies — like many other aspects of Marra’s work — feels superficial at first glance. But they lend credence to an idea that is driven home by the backup story provided by Keenan Keller and Lale Westvind which swaps the brothers’ gender. The distinctly all-women version of Blades & Lazers plays out EXACTLY THE SAME—as it should. This portrayal seems to subvert the typically male-dominated sword-and-sorcery genre, while fusing classic tropes when it matters. Red Sonja’s tits might flop around, sure, but unexposed? Or even framed by a barbarian’s chest-belt? Would Red Sonja ever be portrayed that muscular? Blades & Lazers visuals aren’t the kind one would typically find in fantasy or superhero fare, but make no mistake, they are bred of the same ilk. Its sincerity is feigned; yet, it feels so damned genuine, like paying at a farmer’s market with a counterfeit bill.
While Marra’s story can be obtained through wider means via Fantagraphics’ printing of his latest collection, American Blood, it works best in this oversized format from Sacred Prism. Not enough can be said about the publisher’s printing of Blades & Lazers. The stock is thick and glossy, requiring a real effort to digest. This works wonderfully in conjunction with the pink and navy inks, which tend to shine at a particular angle against the light. The oversized dimensions lend well to Marra’s detailed and confident line work—like some unseen cosmic joke that you can’t see because you’re too close, too deep in the trenches.
Like the best B-Movies, Blades & Lazers works so well because of how serious it takes itself from all aspects of production. The stilted dialogue, visceral gore, frenetic pacing, and high-quality production values all coalesce in this strange fever dream of a project. If you’re a fan of Marra’s work, this will be a gem among them. If you’ve never seen a piece of his work before, strap in and grab hold of something sturdy—like a glass of whiskey.
— Joe Schmidt
By Katie Skelly
Skelly proves in Agent 9 that true female sexiness comes with feelings of empowerment and ownership over one’s body. Her protagonist is depicted via the same methods as other sexualized female characters–skimpy clothes, buttshots, weird angles, the works. But Agent 9 shows off her body with a strut and a smile, all the time. In fact, I can’t tell if the character or the creator is having more fun with nipples gently pencilled, clavicles made sharp, and a pair of legs so shapely and inviting. Agent 9 is a comic about a woman’s sexual pleasure and you’ll feel quite pleasured too when you give it a read.
— Ray Sonne
By Daniel Zender
Published by Uncivilized Books
The human brain is in a constant state of awareness. Surrounded by a cacophony of stimulation, the brain filters and coalesces all that we take in with our senses and tries to make meaning, create order, tell stories. Understanding is a result of cause and effect; comprehension becomes narrative.
As we experience the world, we tell the story of ourselves.
No wonder we are so exhausted all the time.
Much like life, Brooklyn based artist and illustrator Daniel Zender’s new book, Escape Route, is a puzzle. Do we understand these seemingly unrelated images as representational of time passing, action occurring, a moment unfolding? Does each page lead from the previous, or do they exist as their own chunk of experience? Is Zender telling one story or is he playing in a larger sandbox? Wordless and dependent mostly on a four panel page layout, Escape Route relies on the reader to put the pieces together. Meaning is a personal connection; whatever story there is comes as a result of how the audience creates closure.
Zender’s thick black and white art is reminiscent of old Brad Neely cartoons: static, yet awash in potential energy. Each panel verges on unfolding, yet its kineticism seems restrained; the act of placing them next to each other somehow makes the entire page vibrate. There’s an undeniable intent here. You can’t help but trust that Zender is in command of what he is laying down in this book. He has provided you the details to an ever expanding complexity of storytelling, and he trusts you to let your brain do its magic. It’s hard not to love an artist who loves you back.
In a way, Escape Route harkens back to all that was great about Andrew Burkholder’s ITDN from earlier this year. Burkholder treats his reader as a peer. There is a camaraderie in the interaction between artist, art, and audience. That whole “each enterprise is an agreement between thought and expression” thing that made ITDN so spectacular is evident in Zender’s experiment here.
The more I see comics artists exploring the very foundational principles of what makes the medium unique, the more assured I am that comics will continue to have a bright future. When artists openly invite you to read their work on your own, we all move forward through our world. Daniel Zender’s Escape Route is brilliant for this reason and for so much more.
— Daniel Elkin
i am not okay with this
The first part of i am not okay with this is only available on Charles Forsman’s Patreon, which is why I feel so fortunate that he was giving it out at Small Press Expo. This small chapter is about Sydney, a typical overly cynical, trying-too-hard teen girl. Sydney is kind of a brat, ungrateful toward her hardworking mother, dismissive of most people whom she calls “jocks”, and able to find a true place to vent only in her diary. With Forsman’s smart contrasts between Sydney’s narrative captions and what he shows in each panel, we get a full look at Sydney’s life in just a few short pages. His style is reminiscent of Charles M. Schulz, if Schulz took an interest in writing teens instead of kids and took on a more bitter tone. Forsman also knows how to tease readers, ending the first part on quite a cliffhanger. I certainly went to back Forsman’s Patreon after reading this short excerpt, just so I could get more of Sydney and feel embarrassed about how similar to her I was just a decade ago.
— Ray Sonne