Monday, January 22, 2018

Joe Decie's Collecting Sticks

Joe Decie's quotidian memoir strips have always tended to be more on the comedic than serious side, and his fractured use of time makes it easy to set up his gags as very short vignettes. His first graphic memoir, Collecting Sticks (Jonathan Cape), doubles down on his gag work as the driving element of a single, extended narrative. Every aspect of the story is played for laughs from beginning to end, even as the subtext is that of a loving family with certain tics that play out on the page. Decie has the hairbrained idea of going camping with his wife and son for a cheap holiday, but his wife remembers all too well how miserable it was to stay in a tent for several days and was never going to do it again.

So when Decie, with puppy-like enthusiasm, not only suggests camping again but also says that they had fun doing it before, his wife seized hold of the narrative. She booked them for "glamping" ("glamorous camping") before he could even object to its price or ask to think it over. Throughout the book, his wife Steph acts mostly as the straight woman, his son Sam is a sort of wild force of nature, and he's the well-meaning bumbler. Decie has such a dry sense of humor that he's able to get away with this for a book's length, though it does wear from time to time on the reader. The book is essentially an inventory of things that went wrong but that didn't spoil their good time, like Decie's OCD taking forever for them to get out of the house or his son's reluctance to get dressed and do anything but play with Legos. When Decie passed on the responsibility of packing to his son (very much a kid thing to do), his son packed up a bunch of sticks, a recurrent activity for him in the book.

Decie goes to great lengths to portray himself as a fool, from his hilariously awful abilities as a navigator to his inability to create a fire, as he says things like "Getting lost is fun!" and pulls out graph paper from a D&D set to create a new map. There are times when going this broad starts to wear thin, as though he was advised to amp up the comedy as much as possible instead of Decie's occasional forays into more meditative fare. That said, his juxtaposition of bone-dry narrative and wacky visual antics made the gags that much more effective, as did the sober but expressive nature of his grey wash and fragile line.

Once they get to the cabin, things pick up, and by that I mean absolutely nothing of real interest happens, but Decie manages to make it funny anyway. A walk to find a quaint local market for supplies winds up being an expedition to a big-box grocery store, where they got essentials like smoked paprika. Though it's disguised in a series of generational disconnects, the central relationship explored in the book is between Decie and Sam, as they wander off together being very silly. There are funny bits about the cautious Decie having to reel in his daredevil and inquisitive son in from time to time, but it goes unsaid just how satisfying it is for Decie to spend this kind of extended time with his child.

Decie starts to throw in some funny bits to enhance the humor, like a sign at the beach that says "No Photography/No Sketching" after he and Steph had been doing both for hours. Sam is only at the very edge of being whiny, knowing just when to stop (like complaining about going to the pub because it's boring and then remembering he can get a drink with a straw there). There's also the droll, loving relationship between Decie and Steph, both of whom have the same dry and slightly absurd sense of humor, with Steph being just a step ahead at nearly all times. There are also moments when Decie jokingly brings up his very real problems with anxiety that are played straight but also treated with humor, as he fully understands how much of a problem it is even as he's helpless to indulge in it.

This is a lightweight book, by design. It's meant to capture one's attention and keep it with funny bits at the expense of the protagonist, and the grey wash helps the reader quickly fall into the story's rhythms and quirks. It doesn't feel overly long or like there's too much filler, because honestly, the whole story is filler. It's a book that has a handle on its non-essential qualities and invites the reader to hang out anyway. The result is a pleasant journey and a better understanding of Decie through his humor, because framing reality through that lens is what makes the family comedy effective. 

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Dispatches From Seattle: Froh/Clotfelter, Van Deusen

Stewbrew #5, by Kelly Froh and Max Clotfelter. This is the duo's zine that they work on together, and in this case it's comics and collage from a trip between Wisconsin and their home in Seattle. Froh's mother gifted her a car, but she had to drive it back. There are menus, receipts and all sorts of weird ephemera. There's annotated ephemera which included amusing advertisements, as well. Froh and Clotfelter switch off doing comics on the trip. Froh starts off the comics with a strip about her parents, who rarely showed her affection as a child but surprised her on this visit. Froh and Clotfelter contrast nicely in terms of style, as Froh keeps things simple with her line and Clotfelter employs a scratchy, ink-heavy style.

The couple is determined to see as much Americana as possible on the trip, so they stop off in places like Bible Land and stay in the Frontier Cabin Motel. In the Badlands, they encounter prairie dogs and are told that the dogs have the plague and must be avoided. In the style of John Porcellino, there's lists of music they listened to and the kinds of (mostly awful) foods they ate. A highlight is an atlas doodled all over by the artists. The pace of the comics quicken as they get closer to Seattle. Clotfelter doesn't like to linger on details as much as Froh does to begin with, as Clotfelter drinks in the scenery while driving and draws things in dense but readable style. The comic is at its best in depicting quiet moments with awe and affection, like when the two are briefly stranded in a town that feels abandoned, as though they were in a zombie film that was just getting started. The punchline of the comic is Froh noting that despite driving a couple of thousand miles through strange territory, driving in Seattle was going to be much worse, thanks to the general unfriendliness of the city. Everything about their styles and sensibilities stands in sharp relief to the other, but they complement each other nicely. Both their comics and the fun little nuggets of text they incorporate into the issue add to that strange road trip reality they were living in.

The Big Me Book, by Tom Van Deusen. Van Deusen took his formula of the ultra-revolting male autobiographical cartoonist to a new, awful, and hilarious level in this comic. Not only is each individual strip designed to make the reader despise him like he was an expert wrestling heel, Van Deusen has created a subtle continuity between strips that escalates that loathing, creating callbacks that give a base to the exponentially increasing over-the-top quality of each strip. From the author's statement that kicks the book off that satirically wonders why everyone wouldn't want to know everything about him and the (tastefully) nude photo of him sunbathing in a park (which I hope was done specifically for this purpose), Van Deusen immediately sets the reader against him.

The first strip is a nasty takedown of cartoonists and social media, in that he wanted to get a lot more likes from his facebook post of having dinner with his parents back home. That likes have become a kind of currency, especially for artists, is a crystalization of the desire to be validated by popular demand. The fact that the reality is that he berates and insults his poor parents just lays the illusion bare. That's just a warm-up for the comic's real doozy of a strip, in which Tom feeds a stray cat who happens to be a magical talking cat who grants him wishes. Van Deusen wishes for a room full of Nazi memorabilia, to be able to wear a SS uniform in public and finally to be able to fuck a plastic vagina in public with no repercussions. The sheer awfulness combined with the utter banality of these wishes is what makes this story so funny, along with the disgusted but obligated cat's comments and awful, eventual fate. Van Deusen doubles and then triples down in this story, and drawing himself with a leering, crazed look on his face throughout reinforces his awfulness.

Van Deusen then takes that to another level in what starts off as a "I'm bombing at a con story" into something far stranger. In trying to trick a woman into thinking that he's not a misogynist ("It's satire", he repeatedly notes, again hitting on the go-to excuse for many a misogynistic cartoonist's work). Then Van Deusen returns to the realm of the ridiculous, as it becomes apparent that his thought balloons have somehow become apparent to everyone, a fourth-wall gag that Van Deusen really exploits with phrases like "It's not satire, I'm totally a Nazi." That leads to a wacky visit to the doctor, a call-back to his relationship with his parents (of course he still calls his mother "Mommy") and an explosive sight gag to end it. Throw in an homage to Dr Seuss on the cover, and you have Van Deusen firing on all cylinders: conceptually, narratively and visually. The fact that he does it in such a concise manner is what really sets it apart from his past work. What makes a further impact is just how much detail he's able to cram into strips that move so quickly, and how interesting his drawings are. Consider the cat granting a wish in the page above: its sunken eyes and the hypnotic spiral emanating from it indicate a creature that is ancient and powerful.                                                                                                                                                                                   

Monday, January 1, 2018

Thirty Days of CCS: The Guide And High-Low News

Before I publish the handy all-in-one guide to this year's Thirty Days Of CCS feature, I wanted to make a few quick announcements. There will be no new content this week, so that I can catch up with my patrons, whose patrons-only content was put to one side in December so I could concentrate on the main feature. Every day this week, starting Tuesday, will contain a new review for my patrons. New material on the regular site will commence once again on January 8th.

1.  Colleen Frakes, Sophie Goldstein, Amelia Onorato
2.  Laura Terry
3.  Tillie Walden
4.  Luke Howard, Steve Thueson, Dan Nott
5.  Joyana McDiarmid, Jarad Greene, Mary Shyne
6.  Daryl Seitchik
7.  Beth Hetland, Mary Shyne, Josh Lees
8.  Hannah Kaplan
9.  Girl Talk & My Pace 2
10. Iona Fox & Penina Gal

11 .Dakota McFadzean, Dean Sudarsky, Mitra Farmand
12. Carl Antonowicz
13. Charles Forsman
14. Rachel Dukes, Sean Knickerbocker
15. Rio Aubry Taylor, Melissa Mendes & Michelle Ollie
16. Ian Richardson
17. Rainer Kannenstine, Anna Sellheim
18. Kane Lynch
19. Nomi Kane & Donna Almendrala
20. Allison Bannister, Whiteley Foster

21. Romey Petite & Laurel Holden
22. Ben Wright-Heuman & Andi Santagata
23. Sasha Steinberg
24. April Malig
25. Melanie Gillman
26. Reilly Hadden
27. Aaron Cockle, Mathew New, Steve Thueson
28. Simon Reinhardt
29. Cooper Whittlesey
30. dw
31. Awesome Possum

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #31: Awesome Possum #3

Awesome Possum Volume 3 is the continuing, kickstarted brainchild of editor Angela Boyle. It’s a big (400+ pages), varied and loving tribute to the flora and fauna of the world. How one feels about it as a reading experience will depend greatly on one’s interest in the subject, especially since there are a number of stories that aren’t even really comics at all, but simply illustrated text. Several of the entries are simply rundowns on the varieties of particular kinds of species and attendant drawings of them. Considering that there’s a separate, sixty-page section at the end of the book that’s nothing but illustrations, there’s a lot that felt redundant in this anthology. Awesome Possum succeeded when its contributors made the extra leap to truly doing an actual narrative surrounding a plant or animal, and failed when it was simply science class supplementary material.

Not every narrative was equally interesting or equally well-told. While William Scavone’s story about the Varroa mite killing off bees had a solid platform (a beekeeper and his daughter trying to detect mites), it turned out to be scaffolding for a lot of detailed jargon. Spratty’s strip about rattlesnakes was more visually interesting, in part because of the subject, but mostly because Spratty is a better storyteller who used panel-to-panel transitions to create genuine reader interest. Perhaps the best story in the whole book was Moss Bastille’s story about ergot and its long and colorful history. In a style mimicking stained-glass window effects, Bastille nonetheless went from strange folk story to hard science in the investigation of the poisonous fungus ergot. It caused death, strange behavior, hallucinations and was eventually used to derive LSD. Bastille kept the visuals simple and bold, using a lot of negative space to let information-packed pages breathe a little. This is a great example of telling a story without sparing detail, but not dumbing it down for a reader, either.

Some of the artists in the book explained the science as though it were for kids, and others for someone who was genuinely interested in the smallest details of various observations. Bastille was one of the few who found that sweet spot in-between. Megan Archer’s story about ants farming aphids was aimed at kids in terms of the flourishes an overall simplicity of the line, but it’s still detailed enough to be accurate. In a black & white book that demanded clarity, she was one of the ones who did it best, especially since there were so many stories using lettering that was too small or stylized or gray-scaling that was too muddy.

There was another consideration to think of: was their story interesting or boring, especially to a general reader and not someone who doesn’t already find nature’s tiniest aspects to be fascinating? Well, Ross Wood Studlar, who has been drawing nature for quite a long time, took no chances with his story. First, it was framed as a conversation between himself and a group of friends and relatives, which made it easy to feed the reader information naturally. Second, it seemed based on a true story, which made the mechanics of how to explain things even easier. Third, it was about how amphibians have the ability to return from the dead. That’s an eye-catcher that demanded an explanation, and Studlar then went over the science of how certain mosses and amphibians can be frozen solid for incredibly long periods of time and then revive themselves when the conditions are right again. That even includes the tiny tardigrades that live on moss—little creatures that can shut off their metabolic functions and survive virtually any conditions. Studlar has never been great at drawing people, but he can draw natural life like a champ and knows how to tell a story, even getting a laugh at the end.

Kevin Kite and Michelle McCauley did their own take on the Tardigrade, which has survived all five of earth’s great extinctions. The line was much simpler and cuter, but Boyle made a good call as an editor to follow up Studlar’s story with this one, because they are endlessly interesting. That story made use of a simple, thick line that was perfect for the story’s sense of humor. Tom O’Brien story about bats is interesting because he made the best use of the opposite: a fragile line and an extensive use of gray-scaling that nonetheless looked beautiful. That’s likely because he made sure the images stayed in constant movement while the accompanying text oozed along. Kelly Fernandez followed that up with a more cartoony pen-and-ink story that used gray-scaling to a lesser extent. Again, a smart palate cleansing choice by Boyle, especially since Fernandez’s actual subject (about the difference between crows and ravens) isn’t exactly gripping, which she makes up for by making it funny.

My antipathy toward chart and illustration heavy entries is clearly noted in this review. There were some exceptions, and Alyssa Lee Suzumura is one of them. The delicacy and precision of her line is so fine that I could look at it for hours. Her page formatting in this story about animals rafting as a way of making their way across the world was also clear and clever, with striking images telling the story in such a way that they didn’t depend on the text. There are also interjections of humor and absolutely stellar lettering. Patricia Maldonado’s take on cryptozoology is very text heavy and there’s little here that resembles comics, except that she chose an inherently interesting topic and her drawings are beautiful and clear.

As I read the anthology, I couldn’t help thinking what I usually do when I read one: this would have been so much better if you cut out a third of it. That rule applied here, but it’s so long that there were still have been so many great stories in it that balanced its overall approach, like an autobio encounter with a mountain beaver by Natalie Dupille, a cute but accurate account of the alarming phenomenon of aphid birth from Caitlin Hofmeister & Lauren Norby, and a super-cute series of illustrations and pages with big text by Bridget Comeau. Boyle’s own story about the dodo and extinction perfectly balanced her interest in detail with solid panel-to-panel transitions and a star character that is truly fun to look at in the flightless dodo. When you ask someone to be in your anthology and they have a specialty, let them run with it. In the case of G.P. Bonesteel, he specializes in horror, so his story about the invasive plant species houndstongue and all the damage has precisely the right tone.

Sometimes, sheer storytelling and drawing skill turned something dull (cottonwood trees of Canada) into something fascinating, as in the case of Laura Marie Madden. In the case of Jerel Dye and the Grasshopper Mouse, the physical characteristics of the creature became a part of this life-and-death story’s plot as it fought a scorpion. Aurora Melchior and Iris Yan both do their own take on the occasionally alarming mating rituals and habits of various creatures, both with a comedic outcome. Finally, Kriota Willberg’s amusing and highly detailed drawings of the “denizens of Manhattan” is a great showcase for this anatomical artist.

There were times that I wished for a heavier editorial hand in how some of the information was arranged. As noted earlier, this was a result of too many inessential pieces being published, but what can you do when it’s a kickstarted effort? There’s no question that she upped her game greatly as an editor and artist with this edition, as her interstitial possum drawings were an additional form of palate cleanser for the reader of this often entertaining and occasionally exhausting book.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #30: dw

dw is at the most extreme end of mark-makers to emerge from CCS, defying narrative and conventional comics layouts on every page. Which is not to say his comics are abstract, per se. Rather than attempt a straight review, here’s what I’m looking for and looking at when I read one of dw’s comics, and that certainly applies to his book with Fantagraphics Underground, Mountebank.

·        The Title. A mountebank is a snake oil salesman, a charlatan, a fraud, a trickster. Someone who makes big promises and doesn’t deliver on them while still profiting. Is this perhaps a playful self-critique or anticipatory critique of the kinds of comics that he does in relation to other kinds of comics, and how others might perceive him as a cartoonist as a result?

·        Gestalt vs Microimage. The design of this book is meant to resemble a small, personal notebook, complete with lined/graph paper to construct his small blocks. These are meant to resemble 8-bit images on the page and create whorls of black and white cascading across and around the page. Don’t concentrate too much on the individual images, because there are simply too many to take in. I try to take in the gestalt, the larger image that is created by the patterns while still understanding the hermeneutic relationship it has with the smaller images. This isn’t a Seurat painting, where the individual dots only have meaning when seen in the larger context. Instead, it’s more like using a microscope to example a cell sample and understand that the ways in which both views are different and true at the same time.

·        Black vs White, Dark vs Light. dw relies on these contrasts above all else in his comics to create patterns, shapes, paths and interruptions. The stark white boxes that appear on his page almost act as impenetrable borders, but not in the traditional sense of comics borders and gutters. The contrasts rise again and again, as the decorative and narrative aspects of his comics are often one and the same. Not every page is meant to be interpreted; some are simply meant to be seen and enjoyed for what they are.
·        Text vs Image. dw’s go-to image is a simple rendering of an animal of some kind: a cat, a dog, a pig, a stag, a deer or something hard to identify. They live in and on his pages. They are not simply decorative. There are times when there’s some sequential movement with them within each page and across pages. There are also times when dw uses collage to insert found text, which is sometimes used as dialog, and sometimes used as random commentary on the page by himself as author or by an animal. Sometimes the text is upside down, and sometimes it’s not in English. A lot of it concerns sex, which is interesting because I wouldn’t say the rest of his work touches on sex that much in terms of imagery, at least not on a literal level. I wouldn’t be surprised if these references were a textual representation of the id he may be exploring abstractly in the rest of his work.

·        Narrative vs Static Image. Is there a journey that takes place from the first page to the last? To be sure. Does this journey have narrative meaning? I’m not sure that this is an important question to ask, any more than if a walk in the forest has narrative meaning, or a trip on a boat. It just sort of is, and the key is let each page wash over you without thinking about them too hard.

·        I use a different strategy with his little minicomics; I like to look hard at the details of each image, like one mini where each creature is describing a fantastic-looking creature using images alone. 

Friday, December 29, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #29: Cooper Whittlesey

Cooper Whittlesey is a cartoonist deep, deep into the mark-making wing of CCS grads, yet he shows a remarkable amount of range even within that categorization. His collaboration with Ryan Garbes, Sustain Level, is one of many he's done in his short career, and he's shown equal facility as both writer and illustrator. I'm not sure what the division of labor was with this comic, as it's not credited and the comic is largely a mix of drawings and heavily constructed collage. The themes that run through the comic are freedom (economic and otherwise), the negative influence of tradition and hierarchies, innocence and what ultimately corrupts it. There are times that the zine flirts with traditional narrative, but it's only in fits and starts. This is a comic about discord as a form of resistance and confusion as a strategy for freedom.

Whittlesey's own Omens Of Normal Living is next-level material for him. It's by far his most coherent and ambitious comic in every sense: narratively, artistically, and aesthetically. It is at once genuinely moving, absurd, frightening, enraging, hilarious and thought-provoking. Divided into four chapters that are mostly unconnected, each chapter involves a life-changing moment of truth. The first chapter is about a teenage couple where a girl demands to a boy that they go on a Ferris Wheel, of which he is terrified. Turns out he's right, as the combination of the wheel and a mysterious fog turns it into an increasingly hot death trap. Fortunately for both of them, he opens up a little door on his body and announces he can get away to a little room, and off they go. The heat does not relent in their absence, and while this was a strategy for their freedom, it didn't affect anyone else. Whittlesey uses an odd grid here: 2 x 4, which leans toward multiple centering shifts for the eye in a series of 2 x 2 patterns. It's a strategy for both orienting the reader and keeping them on their feet as they look at the page. The visuals range from very light and scratchy to smudgy and suffused with gray.

The second story is about a dog convict in a world where anthropomorphic dogs can marry women, as a metaphor for "the right kind" and "wrong kind" of people mixing drawing disapproval and worse. It's told in retrospect as the dog reminisces about how happy he was with his girlfriend: how they were going to get married and have kids as he toed the straight and narrow with a dehumanizing job. It took just a single day when he snapped at his job (taking away the tree on the roof, which is a fantastic metaphor) to put him behind bars, and to see the dehumanizing effect this has on others.

The comic builds momentum from chapter to chapter. The third is about a plane whose engine explodes, and the captain, understanding that everyone aboard is doomed, hilariously sends the flight attendants around to kiss any children who have never been kissed. Every other passenger then makes use of the time to exploit or experience things they've never been allowed: one prim and proper young girl decides to soil herself, one passenger invites another to take a bit out of them, an adult demands to a couple sitting together that they be his mommy and daddy, etc. Two highly successful assassins realize they are sitting next to each other. The result is a dazzling, hilarious and unsettling display of humanity as the most base of animals, indulging the id without regard to anything else, yet doing so in a way that almost seemed pure, innocent and exploratory. The only asshole on the plane was the guy who wouldn't share his cigarettes.

The final chapter is about the incipient death of a critic/artist who's been given a death sentence of a cancer diagnosis. An expert in “hardcore post-sense American Extreme art”, but at this point in his career, the Ebert to his Siskel tells him that they are “decaying void-geezers resting hard on our fiery laurels.” While the other three chapters were also about death, in this case, the turning point is a total reconsideration of the critic’s life project and approach. It’s not just that having cancer was an extreme that could not be topped, but also that such concepts didn’t have much meaning any more when the void really came calling. The rest of the story was a sensitive and humane and tender exploration of the end of life: talking to ex-wives, meeting up with old friends, going back to old painting techniques and simply understanding that he no special knowledge or insight with regard to his end. Whittlesey tends to use erase techniques in his work (both with text and art), and so the slow fade away of his body was both visually and emotionally affecting. There is sincerity in this comic that belies the crazy visuals and extremity of some of the scenarios, as Whittlesey has clearly thought about these topics at length and treated them with both the absurdity and empathy that they deserve. 

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Thirty Days of CCS #28: Simon Reinhardt

It’s no surprise that some of the material in the new issue of Aaron Cockle’s Annotated first appeared in Simon Reinhardt’s grab-bag comic series Mystery Town. This anthology (sometimes one-man, sometimes with several contributors) is a pure expression of Reinhardt’s aesthetic vision, which reflects Cockle’s understanding of our senses being completely mediated by our cultural influences (or as he might put it, cultural viruses). Where they differ is in the sharpness and direction of their commentary; for Cockle, it’s a critique told in the language of the oppressors. For Reinhardt, it’s simply new grist for a mill of feelings and fears that go back way before capitalism.

Both cartoonists are not at their best when they attempt typical, narrative rendering. Collage, abstraction, erasure and hints at drawings best convey what they’re trying to express anyway, and it so happens that it’s their best fit as cartoonists with a limited toolbox. The conceit of the anthology is that it’s the official municipal newsletter of a place called Mystery Town in the USA, with the mayor (Herman T. Billfolde, a name worthy of Groucho Marx), where all sorts of strange things happen. So there’s a bit of Twin Peaks and every other form of media featuring a quirky, eccentric town. That said, that’s not really the focus in most of the stories. Instead, the stories are often intensely personal and elliptical. Issue 3 has two recurring features: “Nite Time Music” and “Endless Hallway”. The former is a series of mood pieces about music at night: in the desert, on the highway, in the forest, in the city. It’s music as something haunting, something the lingers and evokes deep feelings and memories. These pieces almost read as fragments of something that Tim Lane might do.

The latter feature speaks to Reinhardt’s other fascination, which is the ways in which horror works on a psychological level. Disorientation, both of the audience and the protagonist, is one way to evoke anxiety and panic, as not being oriented toward space (and eventually, time) takes away one’s epistemological foundation. Each of these strips has a different character in a different hallway, trying to make their way as best they can but sensing that they are doomed.

Issue #3 is the “Art Issue”, featuring a story where a show about volcanoes is held in what turns out to be an active volcano that erupts and wipes out the show and everything in it. It’s a funny send-up of art that cares less about its target than it does riffing on what kind of hubris would lead an artist to stage a show in such a place. The citizens of Mystery Town that we meet are often lonely, sad, scared or some combination thereof. Luke Healy’s contribution in #4 is a series of drawings on post-it notes that resemble Seth’s more spontaneous, cartoony style. The fifth issue chases down memories, ghosts, love and Drone Gang life.

In the sixth issue, Juan Fernandez contributed “Wired”, a sketchily drawn story about power lines (and cutting them) that has a narration detailing what happens when one stays awake for too many days in a row. It’s chilling, especially in how impersonal the imagery is. One of Reinhardt’s best stories, “The War Years”, is in this issue, about a sojourner in the wasteland who finds respite in the arms of a woman whose house he comes upon and later steals a device from her. The terrifying thing about this story is that the man who’s trekking is completely cut off from communication; he doesn’t know whether his actions even have meaning anymore. The unknown, Reinhardt suggests, is much more terrifying than a known horror, even if it’s awful.

Eventually, Reinhardt starts to stray away from straight narrative and begins to experiment with collage and mixed media, redrawing a page from an old Adam Strange comic and emphasizing the alienating quality of the shadow ray shot at him. Mystery Town #9 sees a reversal, as it’s a single story by Reinhardt that works in thick black lines. It examines the theme of what crime means during wartime, as a Cyclopean woman lives to steal, until she’s caught and rehabilitated…for a little while. This is really a story about addiction and the way one attempts to replace something that’s missing in one’s life with the object of that addiction. #10 has a lot of guest content from Drake, Nik James and Dean Sudarsky, and it’s epic in a way that other issues are quiet (it includes surfing in a fiery ocean, for example), yet it fits into Reinhardt’s overall aesthetic. 

Reinhardt snaps back full force in #11 with a hilarious send-up of navel-gazing autobio, except that in this case he’s still going to his boring job even though he just won the lottery. #12 juxtaposes a blank form against a series of clocks, as the narrator feels like he’s fallen behind time and doesn’t catch up with it again until his moment of death. It’s an elegantly-constructed story that still has Reinhardt’s hand in it prominently, despite its levels of abstraction. #15 has fragments (some dream, some excerpts from other authors, some autobio), but #16 seems to sum things up with an issue set at the Mystery Town Awards, an event that in itself is odd and mysterious as diamonds appear to rain down from the ceiling. It is, as a series, about fragments and pieces that make up a community and mind.

Reinhardt’s next project was October Movie Diary, a fascinating account of 31 horror movies watched during October. Each movie got four panels, and in many ways this is the first time I’ve seen Reinhardt in control of his line. It’s tough business selecting a few representative images from each film, yet he was up to the task as he used colored pencil both to create a wash effect and to color key elements in each panel (like blood). I think it would be accurate to say that Reinhardt has a cinematic eye when it comes to drawing comics, but not in any traditional sense. He’s obsessed with the single image that represents so much more. It’s not just a matter of shock, but a fascination with the sheer beauty and fascination with something horrible. Reinhardt is also an excellent critic, humorously and mercilessly reducing each movie to a few words, for good and ill.

With Reinhardt’s latest comic, Slow Theft, he moved into a comic book-sized format and full color. The comic reprints some of the best “Nite Time Music” strips (now in color and it features several new stories by Reinhardt. Without the Mystery Town scaffolding, these strips feel like they’re depicting a world that’s desolate and threatening, be they “inside stories” or “outside stories”, as noted on the back cover. “Maze” is about a world where death can come up from the ground in the form of a branching lightning bolt. What’s scariest about this story is that the protagonist’s rules for survival simply stopped working at a certain point.

The title story is about three people who break into a huge home, aiming to do a quick smash and grab and then get out. Slowly but surely, they find the house irresistible, despite multiple attempts by the house itself to warn them away from there. After months of laying around, they realize that they can never leave. The “theft” here is not of valuables, but of lives. Reinhardt’s character design here is clever, and the ratty use of mark-making adds to the sleazy intentions of the thieves. “The White Woods” is interesting less than the story than its bleak tone, as a couple in the woods tries to rely on their physical intimacy as a way of keeping out the desolation of the woods they’re in, with one character unable to maintain that connection after he’s been outside for too long. It’s the color contrasts that make this story work, especially the unsettling white woods themselves. Reinhardt continues to challenge himself as an artist, and the result is a series of ever-more-challenging comics.