Tiny Pages Made of Ashes is Comics Bulletin's small press review column
Beach Girls is Box Brown's latest from Retrofit Comics, and this time around we've got a story of two young kids searching for greater meaning in a seaside vacation town. It's not too much of a departure from his usual work, but Brown has gotten so good at creating a distinct and funny voice for directionless young people. This could be — if not his best — then at least my favorite of his works I've read.
One thing I really enjoyed about Beach Girls is how the contrast of Brown's setting with his characters' idealist ambitions is so well accentuated through his funny scripting and his art. Brown uses a heavy line in his comics which makes them seem like he's aggressively carving out these characters and places, and placing a nice layer of his characteristic teenage burnout humor to hold it all together. He's great at creating those doomed places, the kind where the readiest escape is a shitty house party with a hefty dose of cheap drugs and binge-drinking, and part of what makes it work is how his humor complements the more serious undertones of his work. Brown's got a sharp sense of humor, and his characters use this humor as a way to cope with the disappointment and disillusion in their lives.
Brown's story splits focus on two characters, Phoebe and Hank. Phoebe is an office manager trying to use her vacation time to finally let loose and be free of her boring office life, and Hank is a local surfer trying to hold himself up to an ideal greater than anything this shitty vacation town can offer. Their paths intersect, of course, and while they go through the motions of what would typically result in a summer fling, what both characters want from each other and themselves entails more than drunken summer makeouts.
It's a simple subversion of the "Beach Party" format and romance genre trappings that instead sets up their relationship as more of an eager student/reluctant sensei thing. Their bond comes in their desire to shed their similar trappings and to realize their true ambitions of living a surfer's life unfettered by stuffy office life, or in Hank's case, dependence on the tourist economy. They're both romantics in the literary sense, striving for a true connection between themselves and nature through the purity of surfing.
I love minicomics that create their own unique world and invite the reader to visit. Nathaniel Taylor's minis Mr. Fiz and Simon Ragbon both take place in a kind of storybook world that could only live inside Taylor's head. These quiet, sometimes surreal, always lovingly rendered worlds are filled with an immense depth of detail – almost a Where's Waldo sense of space and complexity – that can't help but to drag the reader into the worlds that Taylor creates.
These aren't narratives as much as they are tone poems and exercises in style. One page is an bold chiaroscuro of black and white, Sin City style, the next a deeply detailed tableau of some impossibly complex baroque building. The fun in a book like this comes from allowing the pages and the artist's creativity wash over you, enjoying the detailed street scenes and strange city architecture as you flip the pages, never knowing what will come next.
There's a lot of creativity on display here, and it's intriguing to consider where Taylor's style may evolve as he creates longer and more coherent narratives. This is part of what minicomics are about: a chance to get an early glimpse at an artist who shows real promise of doing great comics work.