Posts Tagged ‘Retrofit Comics’

Once upon a time, the “single-creator anthology” was an actual going concern in comics, and let me tell you, those were some very good days indeed. Cartoonists like Chester Brown, Daniel Clowes, Peter Bagge, Chris Ware, and others had books they could call their own, where anything and everything went : long-form stories that ran for several issues ran alongside shorter “one-off” strips of varying lengths, the subject matter was eclectic and well and truly ran the gamut — these folks were just going wherever their individual muses took them, and their publishers had faith in them to come up with good stuff, which they invariably did.

In these beleaguered times, however, you don’t see publications of that sort on your LCS shelves too often. So thank goodness for Eric Kostiuk Williams.

I admit, his is not a name with which I was previously familiar (although apparently he self-published a small collection of autobio comics called Hungry Bottom in 2015 that I absolutely need to track down), but I love what the two-headed monster of Retrofit Comics/Big Planet Comics are doing with their monthly co-publishing venture, and whatever they release, I’m game to give it a shot. Better-known cartoonists such as Anya Davidson and James Kochalka have been showcased under the auspices of this ongoing “series,” but it’s the chance for largely “unknown” creators to have their work seen by a wider audience that really excites me most about the whole thing. Some of these emerging/developing talents are still a bit rough around the edges, to be sure (not to say that can’t be exciting stuff to read, as well), but once in awhile somebody you haven’t heard of gets a spot in the rotation and delivers a work that just plain blows you away. This, my friends, is precisely such an occasion.

Babybel Wax Bodysuit showcases the breathtaking scope of Williams’ talents in that “single-creator anthology” format I was just pathetically reminiscing about, and over the space of 20 pages he announces himself as a major talent to watch —which I hope “big-time” publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn and Quarterly are doing, because this guy needs to be inked to a deal immediately. From a surrealistic introductory three-pager to a moving autobiographical strip about his early days on comic-book message boards and forums to a short but amazingly effective historical piece on New York’s East Village gay community to a tripped-out splash page to an even-more-tripped-out piece on a Britney Spears clone in the year 2116, this book has it all, and it’s all delivered with the kind of psychedelic aplomb and rich, cartoony detail that make every panel one worth spending the time it takes to well and truly savor.

To be sure, certain themes reoccur throughout — fetish (as the title would imply), longing for interpersonal connection, the hard road of self-discovery, the absurdity of everyday life — but it’s all delivered without a hint of angst or self-importance, and frankly never even takes itself too terribly seriously even when tackling somewhat weighty subjects. The end result is a comic that’s an absolute joy to both read as well as look at, and one that you’ll no doubt re-visit again and again over the years.

The bright, vibrant colors that Williams’ pages are awash with very nearly divert your attention away from the wonderfully intricate quality of his illustrations, but his staggeringly inventive and free-flowing panel layouts guide your eyes from one image to the next so seamlessly that you can’t help but absorb the depth and richness of everything you’re seeing and intuit the artist’s very specific intent as you go. There are bits and pieces of influences ranging from (most obviously) Kim Deitch to Mark Beyer to Tom of Finland to effing Picasso himself for careful readers/viewers to pick up on interspersed all over the place, but don’t kid yourself — this is far from “derivative” stuff. Williams takes a blank page and makes it his own in a way that many people who have been cartooning for years could only hope to, and when you consider that his career — whatever that may turn out to be — is only in its formative stages, the prospects for the future seem very exciting indeed.

Okay, yeah, less open-minded readers may simply categorize this as a “gay comic,” and call it a day (I guess they can move on to “not-gay” stuff like Batman and The Punisher — errrrm, wait a second—), but even someone as removed from the realities of what gay “20-something” life is like as I am (being a straight “40-something”) can recognize the many universal elements of the human experience communicated by means of this decidedly fantastic (a word I use in its strictest sense) series of masterfully-constructed vignettes. To anyone who claims the short strip is dead as a medium for honest artistic expression, all I can say is : open this book to any given page, follow along for five or ten minutes, and then get back to me.

So, yeah. Babybel Wax Bodysuit is a comic you most definitely need in your life, and right away. It’ll run you all of six bucks (money well spent as it’s printed in a nice over-sized format on high-quality paper with heavy cardstock covers), and those will be six of the very best bucks you spend all year. I’d close by saying something trite-but-true like “highest possible recommendation,” but honestly, I don’t know if that’s high enough. Just get the damn thing and enjoy the living hell out of it.

Don’t look now, but it appears as though toiling away with too little recognition for far too long is finally paying off for superb cartoonist Anya Davidson, who is having something of a “moment” in the (admittedly rather insular) world of “alternative” and/or “underground” comics. Her strip “Hypatia’s Last Hours” was one of the standout entries in Kramers Ergot #9, the handsome hardback collection of her Band For Life web comics from Fantagraphics was one of the best-reviewed titles of last year, and she’s now followed up those successes with the release of her new long (-ish) form original hard-boiled crime/period piece Lovers In The Garden, yet another distinctive release to see the light of day under the auspices of the Retrofit Comics/ Big Planet Comics co-publishing venture. Set  smack dab in the middle of New York’s 1970s heroin epidemic, this comic definitely wears its Serpico-style “police thriller” and blaxploitation influences proudly on its sleeve, but rather than wallowing in storytelling standards of days gone by instead filters them through a decidedly singular artistic lens to come up with a truly unique and instantly memorable reading experience.

Edgy (a term I generally despise), gritty (ditto for that), and at all times authentic, this story of most-likely-doomed souls plays itself out via a means of Tarantino-esque intersecting vignettes focusing in brief on the lives of Vietnam vets-turned-hitmen Shephard and Flashback, art dealer/crime lord Dog, ambitious undercover cop Coral Gables (love that name), mob enforcer Mystic Blue (the hits just keep on coming), and lush reporter Elyse Saint-Michel, as well as various hangers-on rotating in and out of their respective orbits, with each short-form segment inexorably moving its pieces chessboard-style toward a final and climactic confrontation/denouement/heaping helping of karma that will irrevocably shatter lives at best, end them at worst. Its heady stuff delivered in deceptively low-key, “slice of life” fashion, but you can never escape the feeling that things really aren’t gonna work out too well for anybody.

And, hell, maybe they shouldn’t — Davidson’s view toward her characters is never less than sympathetic, but it would be a reach to say there are any genuine “good guys” on offer here, apart from perhaps Coral, who is still guilty of hiding some pretty big secrets of her own and seems to enjoy play-acting the part of smack-seller a little too much for her own good. Everyone is given a surprising amount of depth for the rather short amount of “screen time” each is offered, though, so by the time the shit finally hits the fan, there’s a definite air of Greek Tragedy about the whole enterprise. None of these folks are anyone you’d want moving into your neighborhood, but at the same time you can’t help but feel sorry for each and every one of them for any number of reasons. The gut-punches each of their downward spirals serve up are mitigated somewhat, though, by Davidson’s thick-lined and almost relentlessly “upbeat” art style, awash in vibrant-bordering-on-garish colors, but as much as a strict formalist might feel it all looks a bit “cartoony” for its heavy subject matter, for my part I found the illustrations served as yet another humanizing factor that prevented any of the cast from crossing the line into pure caricature. These are drawings of people, not tropes, and while it would be a lie to call the art in this book “fluid,” it’s nevertheless highly expressive and wonderfully effective.

Stop me now, then, before I run out of superlatives. Intricate without feeling forced, complex without belaboring its own cleverness, Lovers In The Garden is essential reading that will richly reward careful second, third, fourth (and more) perusals. I’d tell you to go out and get it right now, but even “right now” may not be soon enough.