Showcase of the Vital

Kramer’s Ergot 5

Now that it’s good and late in the day and I’m sort of less tired than I was before, I guess my mind is clear enough to discuss this new monster release, which may or may not be sitting patiently at your local store, waiting to be taken off to a lovely home. “Kramer’s Ergot”, edited by Sammy Harkham, used to be a rather small anthology, 48 pages and presented in typical comic format. That’s how the first two volumes went in 2000 and 2001, featuring Harkham himself with a handful of other assorted cartoonists. In 2002, however, the book suddenly tripled in size, transforming into a book-bound showcase for a growing number of young cartoonists. But perhaps the true breakthrough for “Kramer’s” was 2003’s “Kramer’s Ergot 4”, which saw another, far more massive increase in size, to well over 300 pages of deluxe full-color stories, many of them the length of a full singe-issue. It wasn’t just the book’s girth that captured attention though; contributors formed a veritable who’s who of exciting young talent, walking a fine line between artists just recently breaking though, and artists just about to break through. Harkham also struck a careful balance between storytelling and visual splendor, knowing just when to throw in a multi-page collage of redrawn pop-culture iconography among the more traditional stories, which themselves embraced seemingly every type of visual style, from knowingly primitive to lavishly crafty. The book became one of the more acclaimed projects of the year, and anticipation began to grow for the upcoming fifth volume, which has now just been released.

At 320 pages, “Kramer’s Ergot 5” is about as big as its immediate predecessor, but it’s much bigger in terms of anticipation and expectation. The accolades bestowed upon Vol. 4 have transformed this anthology into ‘the one to watch’. The book tries hard, however, to retain the home-crafted charm of its instant forebear, which drew so much power from the handmade feel of many of its entries as wrapped up in a formidable package. The effect remains; this anthology is pretty much the only lavish full-color $30+ comics phonebook in which a contributor can sign his strip off with a hearty printed-out “Fuck all you careerists and fuck the president,” without sounding totally ridiculous. The stories in “Kramer’s” retain a palpable sense of independent vitality, lovingly hugged by C.F.’s soft bleeding colors all over the flexible cover, even while the quality of the entries sometimes dips into the ponderous or the overlong.

There is even more of a focus on storytelling this time around, and some of the most effective contributions to the book offer the most straightforward plots. My favorite comic within these pages is Kevin Huizenga’s “Jeepers Jacobs”, told in a somewhat similar way to the “Glenn Ganges” story in “Drawn and Quarterly Showcase Vol. 1” in that there’s lengthy educational captions offered up (usually a sign of turbulent pacing under many other writers, but Huizenga has managed to pull this off twice now) which work off of the rest of the story in interesting thematic ways. There’s little of the multiple short-story plot structure and none of the overt elements of the fantastic that held court in the D&Q story though. Instead, we have a moving character portrait of a devoutly religious man who dearly wants to believe in ultimate punishment but (perhaps unconsciously) finds the concept incompatible with the everyday living of his kindly life. Along the way, Huizenga gently critiques the concept of ‘saving’ others from damnation as honestly too lofty a struggle to become fully applicable to everyday human interaction (and maybe too metaphysical to provide a challenge to the relative solidity of human memory), leaving the faithful in a curious bind. It’s also the first full-color work I’ve seen from Huizenga and it’s beautifully understated work. Some may find the theological discussion that makes up the story’s center to be too thick, but I thought it was necessary to inform the wistful lyricism of the latter pages of the piece. A fine, moving work.

I have no idea if Chris Ware’s contribution is a reprint or an expansion of a prior story. I know at least some of this story was presented in “The Chicago Reader” as part of a making-of special, and it involves characters from Ware’s irregular “Building” strip. I’ve never seen it before in its entirety, so its as good as new to me. The story is flanked on both ends by Ware’s famous diagram-style layouts, one based largely on words to indicate the dream-state, and one based mainly on image to indicate the passage of time. In between is a seemingly quiet, simple story of the young heroine of “Building” brooding on her lot in life and trying to become more attuned with the natural beauty surrounding her. But really the story is one of pulling back, beginning inside the tortured head of the protagonist, then zooming out to follow her around through her day, then finally stepping backward again to examine the inner workings of nature, and the simple interconnected biological state that many beings participate in, accidentally creating simple beauty and crashing tragedy. And since this is a Chris Ware comic, the whole matter is wrapped up in eight pages. As always, intellectual study of the formal aspects of page layout is mixed with outgoing emotionalism. As always, I am impressed.

There are other good stories in here; Dan Zettwoch offers a sly use of misleading visual effects to draw parallels between the past and present, and demonstrate how close seemingly distant tragedies can get to springing again to life. Paper Rad combine disparate visual styles and initially disconnected vignettes to form a funny and oddly powerful whole. Jordan Crane presents a gorgeous-looking if utterly familiar story of greed in the Old West. And David Heatley decides to cram the entirety of his personal sexual experience into 15 pages of roughly 48 panels each. It’s at first an amazingly frank confession of bodily confusion, and it remains compulsively readable through sheer honesty, but I’d be lying if I said that all of the older Heatley’s girlfriends and liaisons didn’t start to melt into one another by the end.

So the quality of the stories is quite high. I’ll even say that the overall quality is higher than that of Vol. 4; there’s not a clear misfire in the bunch. Perhaps coming closest to that sort of level is Harkham’s own contribution, a ponderous two-page amble. Mat Brinkman’s story was weirdly underwhelming too, with a mutant monster wandering around a blighted landscape looking for work. It’s got a potent Gary Panter vibe, sure, but Brinkman’s lines are drowned in heavy colors by Neil Burke, and there’s little room for the organic architectural noodling that makes Brinkman’s “MultiForce” so much fun; the landscapes look flat and plain, and the piece becomes saturated with a dreary feel. It’s still not really bad, but a bit of a disappointment considering that it’s Brinkman’s first full-length completed story since “Teratoid Heights”.

But even the weaker links in the chain do little to diminish the strength of whole project. I suppose that there’s one thing that the new “Kramer’s” simply cannot provide for me, and that’s the element of surprise. Not that there aren’t surprises in the stories themselves. No, I mean the whole book as a surprise. I was very late to the party as far as Vol. 4 is concerned. I read about it in Best of 2003 issue of “The Comics Journal” and heard many references to it online. And I finally bought the book and it still surprised me; that such a big and beautiful collection of such high-quality work could just appear from nowhere! Like it dropped from the sky! The product of three prior volumes of growth, yes, but so assured and bawdy in its bulk! I think that “Kramer’s Ergot” may still have that particular element of surprise waiting for many readers who’ve only heard of the series in chatting around town. But for many of us, we’ve come to expect things from “Kramer’s”, and simply by meeting such tall expectations the book retains its status as an immediate premiere anthology.

(You can order the book here if you want to have it now; I believe copies have made their way into some of the better shops)