Ha ha ha, oh my. This is way too much...

*Today’s feature review was located atop a pile of random trades in the unofficial ‘miscellaneous’ section of a local shop, the one from which I purchase a lot of my bargain finds. Looking at the back, I noticed that a price tag had been ripped off. I wondered if the book was even for sale, or if some hapless fan had left it in the store by mistake somehow. Maybe it was deliberate. I don’t know.

ME: Hey… how much is this thing?

CLERK: Hmmmmm

[He checks the front cover. Checks the back. Runs his finger against the atrophied glue that once held the price tag. Flips through the book. Checks the inside front and back covers. Flips again. Looks up.]

CLERK: Seventy-five cents?

ME: Ok!

LowJinx #2: Understanding the Horrible Truth About Reinventing Minicomics

It’s normal to feel a little strange about running a review for a book that’s going to be pretty hard to find. I mean, Kid Eternity and Fire From Heaven may not be collected into trades and are certainly undercovered by the current critical thought (perhaps deservedly so in the latter’s case, though I think exploring a popular creator’s poorest woks can prove just as valuable as examining accepted triumphs), but ultimately they’re not going to prove too difficult to track down. Perhaps not so with this one, a 52-page minicomic from 2000. But it’s a fine little time capsule, and a damned funny work, and I think you all should know about it, just in case you run across a copy in a dusty corner of a store you happen to be visiting. This is a Yellow Alert review: keep yourselves on guard for this book.

LowJinx is a humor anthology, edited by Kurt Wolfgang, an interesting figure. His homepage offers few clues about him, though it does give one an impression of his level of visual acumen, filled with passes toward classic animation and newspaper comics, coupled with a creeping rubber landscape, and a pinch of Peter Bagge. This interview at Ninth Art from a year and a half ago provides a lot more information, though there’s still little known about the origins of LowJinx. I presume that an issue #1 exists somewhere, though there seems to be no record of it (unsurprising, I guess; we are talking minicomics here). But, as the Ninth Art interview suggests, this book, the second issue, is what put the title on the map. There’d be other successes. Issue #3 was released in 2001 at a big 100 pages. It bore an interesting premise: a list of contributors was provided at the beginning of the book, but nobody signed their strips. In addition, everyone provided a parody of another artist’s work (though the parodied artest did not need to be a fellow contributor). One expects that, if handled correctly, such a construction could turn one of the more annoying facets of design-centric comics anthologies into a pleasant game. The book seems to have been pretty well-received; Rich Kreiner gave it quite a positive summing in The Comics Journal’s pertinent Year in Review issue (#240). Of less researchable success was the fourth and most recent issue of the title, released in 2003 and devoted to presenting comics created by assorted creators when they were children, which Daniel Holloway of the Journal’s online Dogsbody review feature (and currently of the Journal’s Minimalism minicomics column in print format) blasted as “no more than a celebration of the cult of personality in an artistic community where publisher, artist, retailer and reader are all personalities.” Wolfgang has also produced a short, wordless book titled Where Hats Go, and has been working for years on a gigantic (also wordless) 400+ page adaptation of Pinokio for Top Shelf, which remains incomplete.

But our focus is on that name-making issue #2 of LowJinx, and it frankly deserves the attention, perhaps moreso due to the passage of a half decade’s time. Not only is it a genuinely funny book, but it captures a wealth of concerns among those in the ultra small-press scene at the turn of the century.

The book starts by offering apologies to Scott McCloud and James Kochalka, whose individual visual styles are appropriated for humorous purposes within, though the ultimate purpose of each appropriation is quite different, as we’ll see. The first chapter, titled “What the Fuck is a Minicomic” and written and drawn by Wolfgang himself, begins as a straight-up parody of McCloud’s familiar Understanding Comics lecture format, extolling the comparative virtues of the minicomics style. At least until five pages in, when it’s determined that nobody can come up with a satisfactory definition of ‘minicomics.’ The remainder of the chapter (11 pages) is spent suggesting increasingly unwieldy definitions for the term, only to have a disproving example brought up every time. Ah, but Wolfgang knows what he’s doing here; by offering up constant examples of what minicomics can be, he presents to the reader the breadth of the form, while suggesting several choice specimens along the way. The whole routine is also punctuated with little shots toward typical minicomic critics and other comics scene bugaboos: Liberty Meadows creator Frank Cho will provide a recurring target of mockery throughout the book. I’d not been around for comics in the year 2000, but tales of Cho’s ongoing criticisms of minicomics and other assorted small-press books continued to haunt the Comics Journal message board well into my own time. And hey! Did you hear that Ted Rall is litigious?! You could have heard it earlier today, and you’ll hear it in this book too. Some controversies are longer-lasting than others. One controversy that isn’t explored is McCloud’s own contentious statements made in the contemporaneously-released Reinventing Comics (maybe there wasn‘t time to read it?). Actually, there’s very little McCloud-centered satire, strange considering that the cover art depicts him being mauled by a gigantic stapler.

The book’s next chapter moves into more explicit lampooning, with Jef Czekaj’s “Donkey Boy Wipes His Ass,” a Kochalka spoof cum minicomics satire. It’s surprisingly pointed stuff, with the Kochalka stand-in character taking a huge shit, staring at it, then phoning Tom Devlin: “Hello, Tom. I just made the newest Highwater publication. And, oh yeah, it comes with a CD!” Donkey Boy then reviews the latest batch of Fort Thunder books, which gives the reader an interesting feeling today; it was only after Tom Spurgeon’s excellent 2003 Fort Thunder overview in the Journal (#256, the magnum opus of the Milo George administration) that a wider audience began picking up on this material. I think a lot of newer or less acclimated readers would be interested in seeing how these creators were received by their target audience (did they have one?) back in the heyday. In the absence of historical record, satire can suffice, as satire often reflects common criticisms of the day. It’s also interesting to note that many of the same criticisms may well apply today: “For example, this important, ground-breaking comic is about… well, it looks like it’s about some sort of monkey, uh, walking around. And this one… hmm. This one seems to be about a funny-looking monkey that walks around. This one is more or less illegible… but we can assume it’s about a pensive monkey.” Same as it ever was. Czekaj, it ought be noted, has since moved on to some nice work in Nickelodeon Magazine, and his lovely Grampa & Julie strips have been collected into a book from Top Shelf. Cute, attractive stuff.

And he’s not the only future success in this book. Chapter 3 is cut into four sections, each covering “Tales of Bitter Struggle.” You’ve gotta know who Sam Henderson is. Even at the time of this book’s release, Alternative Comics was already publishing his Magic Whistle book, a veritable cosmos of play. Here, he tells us about the difficulties in explaining what he does to his relatives. Tony Consiglio, whose Double Cross minis would eventually be partially collected by Top Shelf, tells a tale of frustration regarding apathetic copy shop employees. Minicomics mainstay Dave Kiersh gives us a page of whimsical poverty and twee commerce. Kiersh also provides the back cover art, which I initially though was supposed to be a parody of his own wispy style, but it seems to be largely indistinguishable from his ‘straight’ single-page work of the sort, at least as much as I’ve seen of it. But his approach is typical of the far more straightforward autobiographical drive of this chapter. Wolfgang returns to round things out with a chronicle of his comics career, stretching past his death to the disappearance of the art form (Wolfgang gives it until 2045).

And the final chapter, just to keep things from getting too self-effacing, provides “A Word on ‘Real’ Comics.” It’s by Johnny Ryan, just before his Angry Youth Comics was picked up by Fantagraphics. Two of Ryan’s familiar characters, crude Loady and nerdish Sinus are walking out of the comics store. Loady has picked up plenty of New Universe, Archie, and assorted superhero back-issues; what a bastard! Fortunately, Sinus is there to turn Loady on to the awesome world of proper independent comics (amusingly, James Kochalka pops up here too, solidifying his then-contemporaneous position as a wayfarer between the small and smaller presses). The criticism is particularly heated toward Artbabe creator Jessica Abel, whose profile has since lowered a fair amount (at least as far as I can tell): “Don’t be fooled by how incredibly boring the story is and how one dimensional the characters are and how everyone in it is drawn exactly the same! It’s actually very brilliant! The Internet told me so!” But Ryan then ends his story on a note of puffery disguised as modestly, as everyone agrees to reject Angry Youth Comix, and then they piss on it, a dog craps on it, a homeless fellow who resembles Ivan Brunetti vomits on it, etc. It’s tough being neither fish nor fowl, eh? You also might be wondering about the seeming kid-gloves treatment of the Big Two, but Wolfgang’s opening disclaimer will shed some light on that: “…this publication is not a fair representation of what this fine medium has to offer. In fact, most comic books are of a much more universal and mature nature, such as tales of grown men with magic powers, running around fictional urban areas, wearing snazzy outfits and beating up mean guys in equally snazzy outfits.” The feeling is clear: why even bother?

On the whole, this is a great document of a certain time in comics, with interesting creators perched between do-it-yourself and (as Wolfgang wryly puts it) “…the fast, dangerous and high-paying world of ‘real’ comicky-books.” You should probably keep your eyes peeled, should you ever run across it. And, if not, maybe you can click on some of the links I’ve provided throughout, and get yourself acclimated with the creators involved. They’ve done a lot in the ensuing five years, and it would behoove you to find out exactly what.