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In July 2004, The New York Times Magazine signaled the advent of the “literary” comic book and described how a significant group of cartoonists — including Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Seth and Marjane Satrapi — had popularized these “comics with a brain.” Though stylistically distinct, they are united by a realist mode of storytelling: many, we are told, are set in a “slacker world” on the East or West coast or in the “nostalgialand” of New York’s Lower East Side or small-town Canada; a large number are autobiographical, while even those that aren’t tend to pursue similar courses, examining the kinds of personal and psychological issues one finds in literary novels. The article seemed to find acceptability in these “high” examples of a traditional “low” medium — thus parsing degrees of quality along the same lines we do with literary fiction, in order to distinguish it from other kinds of fiction. But if eight years ago “serious” comics implied a particularly “literary” vantage, today that mantle appears to be taken up by works that appropriate aspects of genre to produce sophisticated, avant-garde tales.
The eighth, and most recent, installment of Kramers Ergot, a preeminent comics anthology, has me thinking about this divide in the medium. Its previous seven incarnations were often overstuffed collections: the rare first volume is a kind of hodgepodge, described as “Eightball-type artist’s own showcase series”; the seventh was famously oversized at 16 by 21 inches, allowing Chris Ware to draw a sleeping baby to scale. This incarnation, however, boasts a tighter list of contributors, a more intimate size, and a “more specific and unified aesthetic space of discipline, sophistication, and quiet power.” Editor Sammy Harkham and his publisher stop short of naming that aesthetic space. I’d argue that it’s genre.
The anthology has always featured stories that deal in genre, but the focus in this edition on that particular kind of work suggests that there is now a concentration of excellent, daring artists working in that vein. The book gathers work by cartoonists who, by and large, published their breakthrough works in the years since the literary graphic novel made mainstream headlines. And contrary to the writerly bent of their immediate predecessors, these artists — among them C.F., Johnny Ryan, Kevin Huizenga, Dash Shaw and Ben Jones — have embraced and reimagined the traditionally less “serious” tropes — and those more endemic to the graphic novel’s roots — of science fiction, fantasy, and pulp and psychological horror. If the Times profile aimed to announce the literary-comics scene, then this volume seems to make the case for the prominence of the genre aesthetic.
Gary Panter, the book’s lead entry, is its presiding spirit: He’s been creating pop-genre hybrids for decades — his eighties strip Dal Tokyo, for instance, is a détournement of Japanese monster movies, Texan self-mythologizing and alien worlds — and his multifarious output is reason enough to abandon the neat categories that seek to organize artistic movements. In the Jimbo strip for Kramers, Panter gleefully upends aspects of capitalist enterprise and commercial consumption amid a culture and landscape laid waste. Jimbo travels with his friends to a big-box store called Love Chunk — a bright, clean shopper’s paradise set against the mud and rock of the surrounding nocturnal landscape. Love Chunk, Jimbo explains, produces “many products from one muscle cell pool,” but on their arrival at the store, the trio discovers that it has been anagrammatically reinvented as Hulk Coven, whose one product is derived from “many cell pool variants.” The tale’s ending depicts the horror of modern malaise: the trio lies slack-jawed and dumb, overloaded by an endless variety of choices.
Anya Davidson’s very smart contribution, “Barbarian Bitch,” functions the opposite way, making a pastiche of a handful of narratives in order to arrive at a common ending: a troll and a woman watch a TV movie about a warrior woman pursuing her nemesis amid what could be the highways and bars of 80s Los Angeles; the troll falls asleep, dreaming about playing basketball with a man’s head; the TV movie’s action progresses with ever-increasing brutality. The film’s narrative, interlaced with the troll’s trollish behavior, is counterposed by panels illustrating the central tenets of Buddhism. These calls for mindfulness and inner balance initially read as non sequiturs, sprinkled as they are throughout the plotlines of the movie warrior and the troll, yet they eventually begin to call forth thematic similarities between fantasy/action and morsels of reflection, producing a kind of koan on the nature of power.
Johnny Ryan expands his usual gag-strip format to tell a longer tale about a rescue mission on a distant planet that metamorphoses into a hypersexual, gross-out chronicle of aggressive alien horror. It’s quintessential Ryan (his Prison Pit books are the form par excellence) but with a darkening edge that is rarely present in his work. With the closing panel, in which the mysterious planet hangs, ripe with sinister import, in the void of space, I feel the same pang of existential dread as I do in the closing shot of Solaris.
Resembling mixed media installations, Takeshi Murata’s still life photographs, which make up his contribution, Get Your Ass to Mars, are a mix of high, low and the preposterously offbeat. Most contain unambiguous genre references (VHS boxes for horror flicks Dawn of the Dead, Exorcist II, Terror at the Opera) as well as suggestions of a lurid techno-modernity (a cracked iPhone, multiple mirrored surfaces, plastic objects meant to look like real food); all elements are simultaneously forward-looking and antiquated. In one image, a copy of Douglas Davis’s 1973 book, Art and the Future, lies alongside a stepped pedestal littered with eggs, fingerless driving gloves, a pot pipe, and a couple oranges — objects that metaphorically or symbolically express potentiality: temporally, spatially, or existentially. Atop the pedestal is a metal skull akin to that in Terminator, a film that projects the future into the past. But the microphone that rests near the skull troubles the arrangement. Is it now a pedestal or a stage? How much future imagining is pure performance? I wondered, too, whether the photographs in this series were meant to be read as such; that is, as a sequence of images describing an abstract narrative. In this sense, Murata becomes, in the manner of Philip K. Dick, a kind of “fictionalizing philosopher,” whose surreal metaphysical tale rests on shifting perceptions and simulacra.
The latter question gets some scrutiny in C.F.’s narrative, “Warm Genetic House-Test Pattern,” which is set in a recognizable near-future. Alex, a morbid young man who lives with his sister, teaches a class that deals in some way with identity. “You need to ‘see … through’ obstructions,” he tells his students, all of whom wear placid, smiling masks. Alex invites a young student named Lily to join him for a family dinner. She arrives, maskless, and after the meal Alex and his guests press her into a night of S&M debauchery, with hints of incest. She participates, but her demeanor bespeaks uncertainty, horror, and fear. At school the following day, Alex asks Lily how she’s feeling. “I’m great,” she replies. But the presence of her mask calls into question the legitimacy of her response. The truth of her feelings is hidden away.
What Kramers, as well as the now-defunct Mome, has always done well (go here for a look back at Kramers earliest numbers) is to show cartoonists at work, with sweat on their brows, rather than retrospectively, as anthologies in general tend to do. And this volume in particular reads like a laboratory in which artists spin new creations out of older traditions and expand the frame of reference both for the form (comics and genre alike) and for the social and cultural ideas they engage.
Kramers Ergot 8 (PictureBox, 2012) is available at PictureBox and other online booksellers.