Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin’s small press review column

Please note that the rating at the top of this page is the average for all comics reviewed this week.

Bound and Gagged

(Andrice Arp / Marc Bell / Elijah J. Brubaker / Shawn Cheng / Chris C. Cilla / Michael DeForge / Kim Deitch / J. T. Dockery / Theo Ellsworth / Austin English / Eamon Espey / Robert Goodin / Julia Gfrörer / Levon Jihanian / Juliacks / Kaz / David King / Tom Neely / Anders Nilsen / Scot Nobles / Jason Overby / John Porcellino / Jesse Reklaw / Tim Root / Zak Sally / Gabby Schulz / Josh Simmons / Ryan Standfest / Kaz Strzepek / Matthew Thurber / Noah Van Sciver / Dylan Williams / Chris Wright)

4 stars

The gag comic relies on the reader to connect a single cartoon and the words around it in a manner in which the absurdity of the situation provokes laughter. According to the Library of Congress: “They cover a wide range of humorous situations through an arsenal of approaches that include underscoring social discomfort over relations with members of the opposite sex, poking fun at awkward family moments, providing an outlet for laughing at social inhibitions, or conveying the perceptive and sharp observations of children.”

You’ve been surrounded by these things all your life, from Bil and Jeff Keane’s The Family Circus in the daily newspaper to the subtle corner placements in the pages of Playboy and Esquire. These are often filler comics – quick chuckles to displace your attention from more ponderous work.

But there can be something subversive about these things.

Imagine if you will, that one bright and sunny day, Robert Mankoff, the current cartoon editor for The New Yorker, had, for a number or various and sordid reasons, a complete psychotic break. Imagine that this break allowed Mankoff to envision the world and his place in it in a completely alien way which them pushed him to approach his job as editor in a new light, where the gag comics he chose for inclusion in this storied magazine reflected his new understandings of life, humor and art. What comics would he choose? May I posit the idea that they would be almost entirely made up of the gags found in Tom Neely’s curated 2010 collection Bound and Gagged from I Will Destroy You Press.

The solicitation for Bound and Gagged reads: “What happens when you ask a bunch of cartoonists, artists, and assorted weirdos to do one panel gag comics?”

The answer appears to be something along the lines of, “You break the brains of your audience.” But it will break them in the most delicious and wonderful way.

The gag comic is usually the middle of a larger story. It eschews the beginning (the who, what, when, and why), as much as doing away with the ending or denouement of the action. The gag comic lives in the meat of the moment, and, by doing so, counts on the reader’s prior knowledge to make sense of the situation.

For the gags found in Bound and Gagged, the middle is a weird place to be. Most of these comics take occur in some sort of odd liminal space that places you off-kilter and grasping for meaning. It is this juxtaposition between the expected and the unknown that make these gags something other than just a handful of cheap laughs. By disassociating us from our comfort with form and assumption, we stretch our sense-making to grasp either something seemingly profound or visceral.

That’s not to say these comics aren’t funny. Many, if not most, are hilarious. But the creative force of the artists here (including many well-known names in the small press comics community) lead us to question what it is, exactly, we are laughing at. It is not the absurdity or the commentary, for the most part, that leads to the giggles. It is something weirder and wilder, our discomfort or our unease at the places with which we are confronted.

Here we are, quick and unfettered, cast adrift for a moment and flailing our arms. What we connect with is context – these are supposed to be gags, after all – and so we laugh, sometimes harder than we should. Sometimes maniacally or unnervingly.

And that may just be the most important thing we have ever done.

You can pick up Bound and Gaggedhere.

- Daniel Elkin

Intrepid #1

(Jose Lorei / Montos / Oval)

3 stars

Not too long after watching Captain America: Winter Soldier, I was craving more anti-governmental espionage stories. In doing so, I stumbled upon Intrepid #1 from Graphic Illusions. 

Intrepid is the story of a world full of people with extraordinary powers. These people behaved as heroes but were used as weapons and treated as monsters. Our main character, Joseph Paxton, is one such man, who — after serving his country against its enemies — is now treated like an enemy himself. After escaping an armored escort, thanks to some very special abilities, he sets off to find his comrades and get to the bottom of their current imprisonment.
We also meet Anna Bella-Sculozi, a young genius with immense destructive capabilities as well as the desire to do good, even despite the world’s view of her type of person.
The first thing I noticed about this story was that, like Winter Soldier, it jumped right into the action, which serves to set the tone for the entire book. I enjoyed the rawness of Montos’ art most of all. His art was a cross between traditional EC Comics pencils and slight realism.
Typically I like my stories in color but black and white suits this book just fine. The writing isn’t anything to call home about, but it does move along a solid telling. I’d recommend this for anyone who loves military action story with kick-ass fight scenes and super powers then this is for you.
You can pick up Intrepid here.
- Ra’Chaun Rogers

The Rats Were Bad That Year

(Alan King / Jamie Vayda)

4 stars

Sometimes there ain’t nothing as shuddersome as a good Southern rat tale. If you’ve never had the experience of dealing with a rat infestation, let me tell you, it’s goddamn horrendous. Those black-eyed, pink-tailed, voracious little fuckers are just about the manifestation of all of the nightmares of the universe crawling across the floor hungry for peanut butter and brazenly leaving little seeds of their execrable excrement in their wake.

And they travel in packs.

And they don’t give a shit about you or yours.

Alan King and Jamie Vayda’s 20 page chapbook, The Rats Were Bad That Year, captures this horror perfectly. While it’s more of an illustrated story than a comic book, in The Rats Were Bad That Year King and Vayda play off each other’s strengths to impart the psychological damage a bunch of fucking rats can wreck on a family’s psyche, as well as the lingering damage it imparts. A man can be shaped by the battle he wages against rodents, and, if he is a thinking man, many philosophical musings can arise from the pitch.

As demonstrated by their previous collaborations in Loud Comix, King is a masterful storyteller and Vayda’s art consistently punctuates his narratives. While Deep South Punk rockers at heart, King and Vayda play like Jazz musicians in The Rats Were Bad That Year, each riffing off the song’s theme with their own particular instruments, exploring the harmony between them.

Funny, frightening, and full of human foibles, The Rats Were Bad That Year does what any great story will do. It sets you up, brings you in, makes you think, and then releases you into yourself. It’s about time and place and character as much as it is about narrative. It’s about King telling you about himself as you tell yourself about you. While you may have never seen your own dad crush a rat’s head under his work boot, something about King’s words and Vayda’s art makes it as real for you as if you were sitting right next to it, hearing its scream and the crunch of its skull, smelling the blood and the brains as they ooze across the linoleum floor of the kitchen.

It’s the distance from the experience that somehow makes it thicker in the retelling. King’s had the opportunity for reflection, and through this is able to convey the immediacy of the incident. So, while the monstrosity of the moment is distant through time, The Rats Were Bad That Year has, in its construction, a layer of cerebration that sticks thick to its audience. Vayda allows the story to do the heavy lifting, his artwork serves to punctuate as much as to illustrate.

This is a brutish little story about a hellish childhood experience writ funny and profound.

And damn if it ain’t well worth the two bucks to read it.

You can pick up The Rats Were Bad That Year through Birdcage Bottom Books here.

- Daniel Elkin

E.P.I.C.: Earth’s Protector in Crisis #1

(Lonnie Lowe Jr. / JC Grande)

3 stars

EPIC is the tale of an archaeological dig gone right for the wrong reasons.
We find ourselves in Egypt at the pyramids, where we’re introduced to a nameless Egyptologist/Professor just as a mercenary is introducing his foot to the man’s face. At the same time a nameless businessman and mercenaries hold the professor’s students at gunpoint, threatening to make them all permanent residents of the pyramids if he doesn’t help them get past the traps located in the inner chambers. What follows is not only the origin of a new superhero, but that of every superhuman (or Alpha Strain) on the planet.
I love the fusion of high tech and ancient civilizations. That concept reminds of the writing of Jonathan Hickman or Warren Ellis. However, I wish the art in this comic was a little clearer so that we could witness the futuristic majesty that is Egyptian tech — especially after our heroes risk and sacrifice much to keep they the objects in the tomb hidden away from the remorseless businessman.
This brings me to the next oddity of this comic: everything is unknown. Even our main character isn’t mentioned by name. Giving the creators the benefit of the doubt, this could very well be by design. If so, I’d like to find out what the full plan looks like. There is one thing that seems to be very apparent from the beginning of this issue to the end and that is the serious world building taking place, which is always welcome in my book.
You can pick E.P.I.C.: Earth’s Protector in Crisis #1 here
- Ra’Chaun Rogers

Vreckless Vrestlers Interdimensional Championship #1

(Łukasz Kowalczuk)

4.5 stars

When I reviewed the “Zero Issue” of Łukasz Kowalczuk’s Vreckless Vrestlers Interdimensional Championship way back in March my enthusiasm for it bordered on manic, having the audacity to “rate” it ALL THE STARS EVER. While my enjoyment of issue #1 of this series remains piqued, the fervor in which I express it needs to be tempered some. My doctor has warned me about these excesses. I have my health to think about.

Still – this thing is FUCKING AWESOME!

Issue #1 begins where the Zero issue left off and now the wrestling matches begin! This is a flip book, allowing for two different covers for two different fights. The first features Crimean Crab vs. The Eye, and it is bloody as much as it complex. What could easily just be a Bif-Baff-Blammo kind of smack around comic here is presented as a complex relationship story, full of heart and pathos. In a scant eight pages, Kowalczuk tells a story that, if made into a film, could easily last a good two hours. Such is the possibilities of comics – they rely on inference and embrace the abilities of its audience and, by doing so, are able to convey incredible stories in the reader’s own imagination. Kowalczuk has this down; he is the Barton Fink of the wrestling comic.

Oh, I forgot to mention that this is a “silent comic” – Kowalczuk’s art alone tells his stories. Let’s see you pull that off, Fink.

The second fight in issue one is between Vegan Cat and Flatwoods Monster. Here, the story is more violent, less complex, but equally exciting. It follows the classic trope of combat, of wrestling, of kayfabe, in which one wrestler dominates another until the beaten warrior gathers some inner strength and is able to overcome his opponent. Yet in Kowalczuk’s hands, neither of this combatants is likeable, neither of them deserve our backing. What we have instead is the choice of bearing witness to savagery, a choice, unfortunately, we make time and time again. Who are we that revel so in the suffering of others? Who are we who so enjoy the vicarious thrill of beholding brutality?

We are animals, brother. Let the fighting continue!

Vreckless Vrestlers is one of those comics that fellow CB writer Keith Silva cringingly calls “not for everyone” – but brother, this is for me, for all the reasons I’ve outlined and the questions it’s spawned – for the sheer joy it exudes in its barbarity, for its construction, for its heart, for its artistic intent, a for everything that is so wrong about it that somehow it makes right.

You can pick up Vreckless Vrestlers #1 by contacting Łukasz Kowalczuk directly through his Tumblr

- Daniel Elkin

Sinsationals #1

5 stars
I recently supported a Kickstarter-funded comic called Sinsationals that had an all-female cast of varying ethnicities — an idea that intrigued me. So when I finally received a copy of the book and gave it a first read-through, my only thought was that I wish all Kickstarter-funded comics could be like this one.
Our story opens up with a beautiful young woman of what appears to be African descent travelling on a boat to Infinity City in the world of men. Her boat ride began after she was exiled from an island similar to that of a certain Amazonian princess whom we know from the pages of DC Comics. When she lands, our mighty exile pimp-smacks a pimp (more like pimp-punches) and attempts to steer one of his “employees” in the right direction.
Cut to a strange meteor crashing into the ocean floor, then to a strange and extraordinary woman named Allie. She is a cat girl with razor sharp claws and is also a supermodel. After the strange meteor becomes active, destroys a submarine and floods the city, half of the heroines leap into action — or rather leap out of the way of a tidal wave.
The introduction of our nameless exile was funny and refreshing since it promotes the power of feminine energy, and, while I am by no means a feminist, the same old “guy saving the day thing” gets old. These characters all are archetypes and have personalities, and while creator Shade is unable to develop all of them in the first issue, the characters get off to a great start.
The giantess’s introduction is lighthearted and funny, while Allie’s is a bit somber but leaves you with the desire to know more about her and her race.
This comic has plenty of action, as an ass-kicking nun guns down a slew of dapper demons. The one scene I had mixed feelings about took place in a gym where a group of overly-muscled guys make blatantly offensive remarks at a young woman who is training on a heavy bag. Having dated a woman who is involved in professional fitness, I have heard of the rampant misogyny in gyms, and (of course) the jerks get what they deserved, but it honestly left me feeling a bit uncomfortable. I truly wanted to jump into the comic and say “seriously guys: no tact, no game…just start out offensive?” Which means that as a writer, Shade did a good job of pulling me in.
If you’re a fan of good comics, pick this up. If you want to see a multi-ethnic all-female cast that isn’t an X-Men team, this comic is especially for you.
You can pick Sinsationals #1 here. 
- Ra’Chaun Rogers

Bear, Bird and Stag were Arguing in the Forest (and other stories)

(Madeleine Flores)

5 stars

So many small press comics tend toward the dour or the lonely or are suffused with a generational angst that is palpable to the point where it leaves an almost aluminum taste in your mouth. So many small press comics wallow in the pity puddle created out of missteps, mistakes, or miscommunication. So many are like this. But not all.

Madeleine Flores’ Bear, Bird and Stag were Arguing in the Forest (and other stories) from Retrofit/Big Planet is kind of like the baby sloth photo of small press releases insomuch as it allows you pleasant pause from your day-to-day bringing a much needed joy break. It works those ill-used muscles in your dour face that tighten only when you smile.

Flores is a positive light here. The four stories contained in Bear, Bird and Stag were Arguing in the Forest (and other stories) are exulting, playful, deeply satisfying, and nearly perfect. Each piece demonstrates the extent of her artistic abilities, as they are stylistically rendered separate from each other, using the tone of the art to further the tone of her intention.

The title story, the longest in the collection, is whimsical and light. It is a children’s story at heart, a shaggy dog story in execution, and funny as all get out. Flores’ timing is perfect here, her beats are spot on, and her sense of playfulness is impeccable.

“Weave”, the second story, is more thoughtful and slower paced. Here, Flores’ touch is more abstract as her story is more universal. Her line work is more indefinite, fitting the weight of its message – one of hope in the face of sorrow, and the inter-connectivity of kindness.

The third story, “My body is a vessel for my soul” offers a third stylistic choice. Here, Flores works in the palette of an Elementary School science textbook – cartoon-like in execution, yet ideal for its motif. There is something beautiful in its abstraction, and its final moment is overarchingly embracing.

Flores ends Bear, Bird and Stag were Arguing in the Forest (and other stories) with the story “Wander”, the most beautiful and artistically daring of her pieces. “Wander”, too, has a fairy-tale like quality to it. It is easily a bedtime story for young dreamers. Here, Flores uses the negative space on the page to outline and delineate, to encapsulate and depict. The use of a light gray wash perfectly represents the story’s reverie. It draws you in and puts you in the headspace of the dreamer. It is stunning in its softness, perfect for its message.

Bear, Bird and Stag were Arguing in the Forest (and other stories) is a book for everyone. Within its 40 pages there is the joyful complexity of an artist whose gift is the ability to convey delight, comfort, and the possibilities of hope.

You can order Bear, Bird and Stag were Arguing in the Forest (and other stories) from Retrofit Comics here.

- Daniel Elkin