Fantagraphics has filled a much-needed gap in the market by attempting to catalogue significant entries in the vast world of small print run, self-published, often regional and/or out of print DIY mini-comics. Yay! It’s an especially daunting task considering the sheer volume produced of these mostly hand-assembled objet d’art items, which are too often thought of as a lost minority within an already somewhat marginalized sub-culture. Mini-Comics occupy a large swath of time (at least 4 decades now) with nary a common distribution method, much less any readily available criteria as to what constitutes a given level of importance to the medium. Even after two thick 800+ page volumes, you’ll barely be scratching the surface of this world, something the editor readily admits. To counter that, he has to draw the line somewhere in an attempt to maintain sanity, so the demarcation point is that the pieces contained here are mostly in the quarter-page size, reflected in the size of the actual book reprinting the pieces. I’ll also just say that a book like this is obviously important. Not to put words into his mouth, but it’s something near and dear to Poopsheet Foundation head honcho Rick Bradford, and to me. It is, after all, what we basically do here at PF, trying to provide something of a one-stop shop for this hand-crafted diversity, a general repository, with these here reviews, and a venue for creators to connect and to promote.
Treasury of Mini-Comics: Volume One (of two planned) starts at the start, the late 60’s in San Francisco, where you can argue it really all began. When undertaking a massive project like this, I’d imagine some entries just feel requisite at a gut-check level. While a natural editorial predilection may come into play and favor certain styles over others, in my mind, you can’t really do a project like this without spotlighting people like trailblazer Justin Green, stalwart John Porcellino, innovator Dylan Williams, classic Ron Rege Jr., sometimes grouchy Clark Dissmeyer, the typo-laden determination of Colin Upton, or don’t-call-her-a-female-pioneer Leela Corman. I’m also pleased as punch to see some of my contemporary favorites included, folks like Chris Cilla, Carrie McNinch, Max Clotfelter, or the mighty Noah Van Sciver, especially when the book nabbed for selection is Complaints, published by Poopsheet Foundation, and an entry on my 2010 best-of list. Editor Michael Dowers plots a course for us that seeks to track the evolution of the movement, showcase its diversity, and despite it being harder than trying to herd cats, tries to just make sense of it all.
I enjoyed the emphasis on the mere hardship of self-publishing in the late 60’s, a pre-digital age where sheer accessibility to a copy machine was a fundamental (not to mention, costly) issue to overcome. The SF Bay Area was integral to the birth of the scene, often even battling censorship crackdowns. Leonard Rifas kicks things off with a play-by-play breakdown of his QUOZ COMIX, which sets the stage for how this stuff all gets done in the first place. It’s a nice primer for anyone unfamiliar with what we’re talking about here. The notion of Justin Green as “Revolutionary-era pamphleteer” made me smile, as did the thick-lined vibe of Spare Comic?, an aesthetic which remains an inky favorite approach to this day. His 7-cent semi-tongue-in-cheek DIY tutorial Underground Cartooning Course gets into the effects of lettering, along with various do’s and don’ts.
There’s an interview with Richard Krauss of Midnight Fiction, a sort of unofficial “sister site” to PF, which began around 2006. Krauss began self-publishing as early as the early 70’s, while the site itself has now morphed into being a vehicle to promote the next generation of creators, and he rattles off some great recommendations that we too can wholeheartedly endorse. The book highlights some of his own early work, including Bar Fly, which has a really clean and sharp style. This leads to the down-on-his-luck tales of Macedonio Manuel Garcia, and it’s easy to see his influence on many modern creators. Rick Bradford introduces the history of the long-running Outside In series, the deceptively simple idea of self-portraiture style pieces with a vast array of creators. There’s an interview with Tim Corrigan, the slight distinction between catch-all “fanzine” and “mini-comic” descriptors, along with a selection of his expressive work.
David Miller’s Baby comics have an aggressive and funny juxtaposition of the mean-spirited milk-drunk infant. Colin Upton’s interview has a few interesting notes. His mention of being “thin-skinned” when facing the possible rejection during attempts to initiate deals with larger publishers shows how personality can play into the act of creation and influence a career. I also found it an interesting distinction that he’s kept much of his material in print, sometimes several years after initial publication, which seems to be a rarity. There’s a sampling of his Diabetes Funnies series, a good selection for a representative work full of his self-effacing and forthcoming inner monologue. John Porcellino is here too, discussing everything from self-publishing, to moving into the distro racket, to keeping King-Cat alive despite setbacks, and still being very active on the small press con circuit.
Respected industry writer Tom Spurgeon contributes a lovely essay about the influential “great synthesizer” Dylan Williams. As I’ve often said, Dylan basically put his money where his principled mouth was, created a business out of thin air and sheer force of will, publishing the types of comics that he wanted to see in the world, often times for creators who would have otherwise not had a viable outlet. This built connoisseurship in the audience. That’s the key. Spurge hits all the right beats, with Dylan’s role as a self-taught “academic” capable of curating retailing spaces or his own publishing house, an entrepreneur in the finest sense of the word. There’s the Puppy Toss Collective, his own Reporter series, and the eventual rise of Sparkplug Comic Books as a focal point at a very precise moment in history. Yet, it’s a model that’s still being emulated to this day, his legacy felt at places like Austin English’s own spiritual offshoot Domino Books. Dylan had such an eye for talent, just rattle off names like Chris Cilla, David King, Jason Shiga, or Sarah Glidden, and you’ll see that… Ugh. I’m digressing. I still miss him.
Blair Wilson is a creator I wasn’t familiar with, but I enjoyed the distinct aesthetic. It’s full of plump-lined pieces that inhabit the full page with patterned texture and caricature all melding together for some striking imagery. This bleeds into very early Chris Cilla work, showcasing his burgeoning sensibility. He seems to be at a breaking point in the mid to late-90’s, where free-floating imagery with accompanying text gives way to less and less dialogue in favor of more expansive art occupying more of the page real estate in his later works. This really hones in on the idea of the timeline and evolution that Dowers wanted to capture with this book. I was amused by the diagrammatic work of Marc Bell, an almost Detail Fetish approach (to reappropriate a term from contemporary art, because screw the dichotomy between mini-comics and the self-appointed gatekeepers of high culture) to his Rube Goldberg style machinery and contraptions. Leela Corman is notable for a couple reasons, pushing things from the 80’s into the 90’s, and I love how her more open line work further blurs the line between what’s considered indie and more commercially successful material like Love & Rockets. Corman was an early female contributor, but she would probably rightfully argue with me about making that distinction based solely on gender. Travis Millard delivers an almost Tony Millionaire level of winsome detail, an ability to portray unrealistic characters as emoting utter realism.
Fiona Smyth has a series of rich pin-ups, with high interest, high contrast art bearing an ability to world-build in single full-page panels. I’m always drawn to stuff like this that’s instantly eye-catching. Mark Todd and Esther Watson were completely new to me. It happens. Nobody on the planet can possibly get to everything, it’s one of the underlying points of this project. There’s a whole world of work out there. I take this as proof that we really are just scratching the surface. I’ve been reading mini-comics steadily for the last 20 years or so, and have reviewed hundreds (I just passed 500 here at PF recently) for about 10 years now, yet there is always room to explore new territory. I enjoyed the pieces that seemed to smear the line between pop culture and mini production. Andy Singer’s No Exit series has an open and airy vibe, with pointed themes that seek to subvert many cultural touchstones.
Then there’s the aforementioned Complaints by Noah Van Sciver. Full Disclosure: Poopsheet Foundation published this book, so color me biased, but here’s what I said about it when it was selected as one of the Best Mini-Comics & Small Press Titles of 2010: “Complaints had a purity of spirit, a crystal clear aesthetic, and a POV that is among the best that modern DIY self-publishing has to offer. This is the future of the scene.” For me, no project like this could ever be complete without a selection from Noah. I’d easily put Noah Van Sciver in my top 3 mini-comics creators currently working in the industry today. You guys like games, right? Well, there’s some free comics in it for you if you can successfully guess who the other two are in my little personal triumvirate.
Max Clotfelter’s piece is an alt mythology apocrypha of sorts, which is one of my favorite recurrent themes in the world of indies. David Heatley has an extended section of full color entries (along with Laura Wady’s stark and haunting color images) that brazenly prove the self-effacing power of autobio connectedness. With very forthcoming reveals about his inner nature and shared truths about the human condition, Heatley’s work rises above being the type of navel-gazing quotidian affair that Wednesday cape crowd punters and other laypeople most commonly associate with this slice of the medium. The colorful aesthetic and thematic punch of Heatley and Wady’s work provides a nice visual pop to remember the project by. That is to say, there were a couple pieces after them, but these are the ones that I’ll remember long after putting the book down.
I can’t really stress strongly enough how important a project like this is, despite it being nearly impossible to render exhaustively. That said, kudos to editor Michael Dowers and publisher Fantagraphics for taking it on. It’s a rich resource for this strata of the industry. While it kind of attempts to mimic the low-fi production values of the work it contains, it’s actually a really nice book! I think some might try to argue that the $29.99 price tag may be a prohibitive entry point for a book of such diminutive dimensions. But, considering 800+ pages(!), most of us would consider it a steal to get our hands on some of this material and all of the insight it contains, whether for use as a reference guide to handily keep on the shelf, or for adventurous consumers who desire a weighty sampler of the depth and breadth of what the world of self-published mini-comics has to offer. Grade A.