I am a man of muscle mystery.

*Back to Basics Dept: Considering that the vast majority of my average workday consists of sitting still, looking at papers, looking at a screen, typing, and occasionally scooching my chair over to reach something on the other side of my desk, just about any activity that puts dirt behind my fingernails tends to make me feel like a rough-hewn outdoorsman. Today, for example, I replaced a headlight on my car! Oh, the joy of unscrewing those screws, unplugging that light, fitting a new light into the slot and sealing it back up again - I am now a rugged mountain lion of a feller. If you are an elk or something, you should stay away until I get back to my files.

The Origin of Sparky

I’ll confess: I only bought this $2.99, 32-page self-published pamphlet for the 4-page jam between creator Steve Peters and Dave Sim. And it’s a good one - Sim is in full-blown visual dazzle mode, busting out all kinds of stippled, cosmo-religious imagery, which joins with Peters’ own simpler style to form a sort of animation-ready creation myth, albeit one that also uses the properties of the comics page to a clever extent. Sparky, a floating half-angel, half-devil black cat archetype character, is welcomed by an angelic woman, who grips his stopwatch heart, circled by insects and demons, and transforms him into a baby, ready to be reborn betwixt the universe's good and evil. Phallic images also appear, spurting infinity. A fine jam, a really fine one.

Still, you could argue that just getting me to pick the book up makes it a ‘fine’ jam - after all, one of the natural virtues of jam-heavy comics is that it allows for a plethora of big names to pop up on the cover, all for little work on the part of said names and a low cost (if long production time) to the pamphlet’s producer. There’s lots of names in this one: Kyle Baker! Kevin Huizenga! John Porcellino! Carla Speed McNeil! James Kochalka! Alex Robinson! Zander Cannon! Roberta Gregory! Shannon Wheeler! Donna Barr! Bob Burden! Dave Sim! Yes, all of them are indeed present, though beyond Sim few of them contribute more than one panel - it doesn’t matter, as the jam gives everyone their little piece of action, their chance to steer the story.

The Pennsylvania-based Peters, also creator of the Slave Labor series Everwinds and his own Xeric-powered Awakening Comics, does try to add a bit more than jamming to the book, though much of his solo contribution amounts to little more than context and ultimately seems slightly frustrating. We see how Peters got the idea for this jam book, and how he developed the titular Sparky character, whose many secret origins form the topic of every jam (and, cleverly enough, the autobio portions of the book as well), though this story eventually peters out into nothing - I guess the existence book itself is the ‘conclusion.’ There’s a romantic subplot that appears to exist mainly to provide colorful insights into the book’s creation, but then gets a bit too much emphasis and winds up getting lost. At first, the book appears to be using pertinent jams to illustrate certain points on Peters’ story’s timeline, but that conceit is quickly abandoned. Given the appearances by characters obviously from Peters’ other comics, I expect that his whole body of work is sort of proceeding on a continuum, and it will all seem a bit clearer to constant readers.

But still: lots of jams, which means lots of improvisatory, ‘top this!’ storytelling. Sparky emerges from JFK’s blood in Dallas. Sparky dies from a lethal plop take and ascends to heaven. Sparky just wanders through a lot of crazy stuff. Many of these stories were composed at cons, and there’s a sense of too-tired-to-think random ideas at work, and some of them work better than others (you can just hear Burden’s cackling glee behind stopping a story dead in its tracks to depict Flaming Carrot thinking about eating pie), though the real fun of a jam book is tracking the procedure, and breaking it apart. It’s also generally funny stuff, with a high enough level of talent across the board that the median never dips too low. Lots of preview images can be found here.

There’s also a few unexpected extras, like sample pages from a cartooning class Peters is teaching, and a center-spread bonanza of hallucinogenic imagery from Eric Wilmoth. Peters has even composed a soundtrack for the comic, the lyrics to one tune co-written by Sim(!), and has announced an open call for 1-2 page submissions for his next book, Sparky in Love. Clearly a labor of love, and sometimes a rewarding one. Dave Sim fans won’t want to miss it, but those interested in jam comics will do well too.