Pamphlet-format alternative comics, a dying breed? Obviously nobody took that line up to Toronto, because Koyama Press kicks out beautiful pieces of paper-and-staple art like it's the only pure thing in the world. We could use a lot more. Here are two of their recent releases:
Baba Yaga and the Wolf, by Tin Can Forest.
Tin Can Forest, according to this lavish near-tabloid size comic's indicia page, is Marek Colek (story and images), and Pat Shewchuk (decorative elements/plant images/symbols). That's hardly your typical writer-penciler comic booky division of labor, and as per usual when formulas are deviated from, you can read artistic intent in what's being done differently. "Story and images", which are typically the comic in toto, share credit with the kind of job that's usually relegated to the fine print as "design coordinator" or some such unglamorous functionary title. In this comic, though, that extra stuff is important, just as much a part of the reading experience as the words and pictures. It's a statement of purpose that's carried out in deeply satisfying fashion -- this comic leaves it all on the page in a stunning effort to be a beautiful object, and it hits right on the mark. Colek's fluid, sensuous linework and moody, fog-drenched colors put forth a moody, engrossing canvas for Shewchuk's vaguely Art Nouveau design motifs to spiral out from the word balloons, superimposing an extra layer of visual decadence on top of the "comic" part of the comic.
As a pure visual experience, it's dizzying, so lush and elegant that the eye lingers over every inch of every page in this vague, atmospheric folktale adaptation. The crisp, dry grays of dead leaves curling over forest floors invite as much contemplation as Colek's graceful, bigfoot-inflected cartoon figures, which draw together the liminal, breathier qualities of James Jean, Mike Mignola, and Rafael Grampa into a thin-lined solidity that's never forceful but never lets up either. And though the move through the pictures is slow and scenic, it's always in process, rarely abutted even by panel borders. Baba Yaga's pages are so roomy, so full up with their thick and verdant natural backdrops, that the figures simply wend their ways across them, multiple images of the same people leading the story from one place to another in a slow, almost processional rhythm. It's an approach that finds a good mirror in the specifics of the plot, which is as simple as it is imagistic; a desperate Russian peasant makes a deal with the devil in exchange for his brother's life, and can turn only to the witch Baba Yaga for salvation when it inevitably goes bad. There's at least as much nuance as substance to this material, and Colek and Shewchuk seems at least as interested in exploiting its pictorial potential as they are in bringing it to a satisfying conclusion.
In fact, the comic cuts off on a haunting, evocative note, its plot laid out but completely unresolved. It's a testament to the hypnotic quality of the duo's wide-open use of the medium, as well as the power of their work's emphasis on total visual pleasure, that the truncated ending isn't in the least unsatisfying. Rather, it takes the reader as deep as can be into an almost completely unrecognizable world of supernatural forces and thick color and curiously absent morals, and leaves off in the center of it instead of leading us back out again. This is "art-first" comics done with considerable talent and clarity of vision, the story growing more obscure as it goes, breaking down into blackness and hymnal song lyrics, its word balloons' tails pointing to the characters who are most prominent in the compositions rather than the ones who are actually speaking, but simple and boldly stated enough so that it's never lost in Colek and Shewchuk's near-tangible image-thickets. Arresting, compulsively readable stuff that makes a grand showing of the medium's potential for suggestion over depiction.
Grey Supreme #1, by Mark Laliberte.
This is a really weird one, and as happens so often, in that it's deeply satisfying. Grey Supreme is barely, barely a comic at all, hanging equally to the art-zine mantle, a pamphlet full of full-page and two-page images that make no attempt whatsoever at plot-grounded "story". The impression it carries is more that of a highly focused gallery show, or of image books like Nazi Knife than the typical Kirby-Tezuka-Herge mode of panelled anecdotes. The first segment of the book, titled "Swallow", is a 14-picture suite of views into the same exact scene: a hand reaching out from a vast surface of water. It's an evocative image, one that bears out the repetition Laliberte gives it -- the water swirling from Hokusai-esque brushwork to op-art color fields to simple, uninflected rushes of line, the hand moving from cartoon silhouette to hatched photorealism and back and everywhere in between. The second, shorter segment, "Double Rainbow" is a similarly tight-focus exploration of color, with a single highly detailed landscape photograph run once around the spectrum of color filters, from red to violet before concluding with a brief explanation of the atmospheric factors that create rainbows set against a flat black page.
Two images, each with variations thereon -- two comics. Not exactly a Green Lantern storyarc. The immediate question is whether or not Grey Supreme can really be counted as comics at all. Comics tell plot-based stories, don't they? Comics have characters and action, don't they? Well, yes, but they certainly don't have to. If we're just defining comics as "sequential art" then Laliberte's work stands up as well as any Marvel page. Image follows image, the sum is greater than any one component part, and honestly, these compositions in their simplicity and lack of story content rely much more heavily on the sequences they play parts in to add value than most more typical comics panels. But even if this work is judged up against the more rigorous standard of common comics practices, it's deep into the same techniques and ideas that power just about everything on the average Diamond-account store's shelves. Think of the average "talking heads" scene -- whether in something as arty as a Blaise Larmee comic or as broad as an issue of Preacher or Avengers. The views into the scene shift, the placement of figures and words in the compositions change from panel to panel. The usual rationale for this is that changing the views keeps the sequence lively. But that's just the surface of it. The fact is that comics reconstruct themselves with every transition from picture to picture, coming back in to focus on the same thing again and again until the scene changes -- just as Laliberte does.
There's a deeply felt joy to this material, which is nothing more and nothing less than a talented artist narrowing his focus to a pinprick, keeping the most basic foundations of comics construction intact while jettisoning everything else. It's liberating to read, to think about and turn over and over in one's head and hands. Laliberte is subtle and sure in his use of comics conventions -- cartoon iconography, pure bright color -- but in presenting these things unadorned he forces his readers to look at them anew, to question how much they belong to the medium and how much the medium belongs to them. Very strange, very beautiful, very brilliant comics art by an artist who makes defining his work as much a journey as the work itself.