Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comic Bulletin’s small press review column.
The Book of Cave Tooth
By Benjamin Marra
Published by Colour Code
If at any time in your misspent youth you chose to stay inside on a glorious sunny day hunkered over graph paper, character sheets, and in thrall to plastic polyhedral dice, you’re likely aware Russ Nicholson, David Trampier, and Darlene Pekul née DARLENE proved long ago that fantasy art looks right in black and white, period. Those early Dungeons & Dragons artists were a few of the first to explain the phrase “honor among thieves” to dungeon crawlers, describe alignment with the image of “Emirikol the Chaotic,” and imagine how a Grell attack or an ambush by a party of Githyanki might appear. With pens, brushes, and ink, these artists and others define the look of character classes, monsters, and how D&D and AD&D campaigns would play out in the imaginations of tabletop gamers for decades.
In The Book of Cave Tooth, cartoonist Benjamin Marra uses eleven full-page black and white illustrations — and a full-color wraparound cover — to tell the tale of how an indigent fighter with only his wits (and wisdom), a sword, and his mighty right arm becomes a god. Originally published in the German art magazine Superpaper earlier this year, The Book of Cave Tooth utilizes the mode of an implied narrative to sketch out a wordless story while leaving in enough ambiguity to make the reader believe they’re adventuring alongside Marra’s company.
In comics like O.M.W.O.T (One Man War on Terror) and Night Business, Marra gives readers a hyper-exaggerated exploitative world of sleaze and sin, action and adventure. Marra is a dangerous cartoonist because his work embodies what most comics lack: a philosophy. The (sometimes) stiff look of Marra’s men and women conceals theoretical constructs he wants readers to think about — that tickle on the back of the neck that says, “something more is happening than what’s being shown” — like how the pictures and words in comics can operate in an incongruent compatibility that creates tension on different levels of its storytelling.
As unique of a cartoonist as Marra is he also acts like a chameleon at times when he apes a certain look without losing his singular style. Jack Kirby? Sure, no sweat. Kirby done “the Marra way” embodies the spirit of the master to the letter of the law. The Book of Cave Tooth plays with this same strain of inspiration and interpretation. The helmet Marra’s fighter acquires later in his adventures is a loving tip of the cap to David Sutherland III’s iconic “Paladin in Hell” from the AD&D Player’s Handbook and leaves little doubt Marra, like countless others, spent hours staring agog in wonder at every shade and each line of Sutherland’s masterpiece.
Marra understands implied narrative illustrations reward an acolyte’s adherence to detail. So campaigning along with Marra’s adventurers means paying attention to the little things like thieving Halflings and big things like a one-armed ogre. There are feelings too, like the look of desperation in a last ditch saving throw or the sanctity of a cliffside where a wizard’s fall is mourned only by a knight errant and indifferent twin suns. Unlike the hard plastic action-figure look to O.M.W.O.T and the baddies in Night Business, The Book of Cave Tooth is Marra at his most sinuous, seductive, and gooey.
Hard edges like spikes and sword blades give way to the inky folds of a magic user’s robes and the spilled viscera of a satanic terrors. The backgrounds are works of art in themselves, cross-hatched wonders depicting dungeons, smoky taverns, and blasted landscapes so painstakingly drawn they prove Marra is more than a player, he’s a damn dungeon master. The Book of Cave Tooth makes for a treasure chest of adolescent nostalgia and imaginary battles long past that will always feel so real when drawn by true craftspeople of illustration like Nicholson, Trampier, Pekul, Sutherland, and Benjamin Marra.
(Editor’s Note: When I asked Justin Giampaoli to contribute to this week’s Tiny Pages Made of Ashes, he kindly replied that his reviews of the last group of comics from Latvian publishing house Kus! needed a re-run. These reviews originally were published at Thirteen Minutes)
All the following are available from the Kus! Webstore.
By Mikkel Sommer
(Mini-Kus! #34, September 2015)
Sommer’s wordless tale about the titular returned Soviet space-dog hits all the right mysterious notes. Limonchik’s presence signals an apocalyptic rain of destruction that Sommer punctuates with heavenly white wisps wreaking havoc all across civilization and exploding objects suspended in mid-air seemingly without cohesion, which plays effectively unnatural to the senses. I enjoyed reading it as a cautionary parable about man mucking about in the cosmic balance.
By Theo Ellsworth
(Mini-Kus! #35, September 2015)
By using equal parts body horror and ornately textured page design, Ellsworth calls into question the nature of reality and our perceptions of time, place, and purpose being on a sliding relative scale. It’s challenging without being obtuse or off-putting, welcoming readers to an adventure that tries to understand the cycle of birth, life, and whatever comes after. I’m always a fan of festive colors that call to mind the manic swirls of Dia de Los Muertos imagery, particularly those in the final page.
Pages to Pages
By Lai Tat Tat Wing
(Mini-Kus! #36, September 2015)
The subtle blue and pink pastels of this Hong Kong artist are concerned with the fluid identity of the protagonists, their equally mercurial emotional states, and the supposed value of our all-consuming pastimes. Pages to Pages boasts a playful meta-fascination with the medium of sequential art itself, in a way that belies its serious examination of purpose and fame in the Social Media Age.
Snake in the Nose
By Tommi Musturi
(Mini-Kus! #37, September 2015)
Musturi’s plump lines are reminiscent of a Saturday morning cartoon, emphasizing an overstimulated and oversaturated culture continually craving newer bigger more no matter how much content that rampant consumerism demands we consume. The resulting feelings of emptiness are funny, sure, but more important are our efforts to resist the apocryphal lies of the media about cookie-cutter life in the burbs. As we see, the enjoyment of the small things, and jettisoning the excess, while striving for a more enduring contribution is an uphill battle in a flawed system.
By Ingrida Picukane
(Mini-Kus! #38, March 2016)
The adoring big eyes of Picukane’s characters almost distract us from the format realization that one page bleeds into the next and you could probably unfold it all accordion style into one big panoramic stream-of-consciousness view with overlapping imagery. It’s not translated from the French, but no matter with the emotive lines and careful figure placement acting as guides. We see a man whisked away amid garden floral patterns, by something akin to subverted sirens or perhaps a Maiden Mother Crone trifecta and it’s all an ingenious use of the medium. As comics readers, we’re accustomed to the tertiary information delivery of combining words and pictures, but this almost adds a fourth layer. It reminds me of a full color reimagining of Julia Gfrorer’s work (which is one of the highest compliments I can bestow), where femininity intersects the natural world, and it’s immediately earned itself a place on my running list of contenders for Best of 2016.
By Tara Booth
(Mini-Kus! #39, March 2016): Booth’s use of colors borders on kaleidoscopic at times, highlighting a dizzying exploration of the highs and lows found in daily mundane life. The protagonist escapes from what appears to be a one night stand, in favor of the sanctuary of her own art loft and the creature comforts of a canine pal, pizza delivery, and a hot shower to cleanse the lingering memories of the previous encounter. Frustrated waiting for the muse to visit, she ventures out, where the perils of dog poop are the least of her worries when she’s confronted with a serial exhibitionist whacking it in front of her. It’s whimsical and startling, with the right dose of introspection.
by Hanneriina Moisseinen
(Mini-Kus! #40, March 2016)
The creators in this recent Kus Komiks line favor an increasing reliance on visuals only with no dialogue, and it’s a tremendous showcase for talent. 1944 witnesses Moisseinen using just pencils and maybe some light inks, or probably charcoals, to chronicle a hurried rural evacuation during the war. The proceedings are amplified with the added urgency of a cow going into labor; what might otherwise be a superfluous event is used to show how we can make time for small moments of humanity and a starling act of compassion amid the horrific impending destruction.
By Aisha Franz
(Mini-Kus! #41, March 2016)
EYEZ is a great example of a forward-thinking ethos, where privacy will be an ever-growing concern in our future, forever competing with invasive technology and an ever-present government eye honed on security. I love the way Franz is able to encourage gender fluidity in an organic manner that’s driven by storytelling needs. In terms of the denouement, I probably would have preferred more open rebellion as opposed to the retreat and adaptation we get, but the story makes up for that small personal preference with memorable visuals and an odd sensuality with the long clean lines.