At Least My Sweater Hasn't Worn Out

Blab! Vol. 17

(this review first appeared in The Comics Journal #285, Oct. 2007; as usual, the formatting and paragraph breaks are different here, and I switched five or so words around)

I became oddly confused reading through this recent volume of Monte Beauchamp’s compilation of comics, illustration and design. Or maybe ‘bedazzled’ is a better word. Perplexed?

Whatever you want to call it, I was looking at the obligatory Spain Rodriguez story, an eight-page affair titled High Smile Guy in a Low Smile Zone, and I began staring at the page. Closely. It’s a finished story, yes, but I suddenly noticed that Spain’s pencils were still clearly visible around his inks, forming a sort of ghost outline that’s not immediately distracting, but eventually does the trick after the effect has seeped into the mind. Heck, I even caught a few words pasted over something else in one of Spain’s narrative captions. I’d never noticed before. A trick of intense visual reproduction quality? An intentional drawing of attention to process?

The strange thing is, while I liked Spain’s story in the way I generally like Spain’s autobiographical material in Blab!, the nature of the visuals wound up interacting in a curious manner with the story itself. It’s an account of a time spent working at a plant, especially scattered and abrupt - events are relayed in what seems like a logical (if not chronological) order, but there’s an absence of cumulative effect. Really, the story just seems to stop after it’s run out of space to fill. And I think that’s what got me staring deep into those pages, wondering if I wasn’t just looking at a Spain comic, but some procedure-focused repositioning of the essence of a Spain comic, transparent about its manner of creation in the spirit of an old comic strip exploded to such a large size that the colored dots and wrinkles are luxuriously visible.

Blab! tends to inspire reverie of that sort these days. Elsewhere in this issue, there is indeed a bout of vintage extreme close-up, as Beauchamp presents A Tribute to Bazooka Joe, an array of four gum-wrapper strips zoomed in so that their mess of lines and colors are self-evidently thatches of dabs and spots, every character sporting an awful case of the measles, and every curve of the pen made exceedingly evident. It’s a nice enough presentation, with a cute header that stretches from page to page like you’re reading an especially long, four-part wrapper, but I can’t say my appreciation of Bazooka Joe was particularly enhanced by throwing the spotlight on its design qualities and underlining its propensity for corny jokes - there’s little there I couldn’t pick up before chewing my gum, despite being denied the big-page gaze of a slick print anthology.

But Blab! keeps on trying in the way it always does, in every department. There’s also some anonymously-presented vintage roller skating labels, which offer a small bit of interest, although there’s little of the cross between cultural revelation and individual craftsmanship that existed in, say, the Krampus cards of issues past. And, moving away from charismatically cracked and faded flakes of ephemera, there’s still the design-focused, visually-resplendent drawings and stories that have made the anthology’s name over the years, from many contributors you’ve undoubtedly seen before, pursuing perhaps the same visions. One of the odder properties of the recent Blab! is that its muchly-fixed lineup of artists haven’t so much as pressed themselves into a variety of modes or subject matters, but focused on perfecting a specific plurality of aesthetics. As it goes, the book is never less that pretty, and generally accomplished, although I genuinely have trouble recalling which stories are in which year’s edition anymore - they’ve all gotten to blend into one another in a flooding Blab! effect.

There are comforts in this, yes. Just like with most recent editions of the title, you can essentially guess what you’re in for in Blab! Vol. 17 by recalling what you saw in, say, Blab! Vol. 15. You know you’ll open the book and fine something by Spain, some pages by the likes of Walter Minus or Peter Kuper and the like - none of them stand out to any great extent this time, but the skill is obviously present.

Sometimes that’s more than enough - tackling a Hurricane Katrina theme, Sue Coe’s and Judith Brody’s Hurricane provides all the apocalyptic vistas of black/white/red destruction you’ve come to expect, and the sheer calamitous authority of the visuals -- thousands of jagged items washed away by a pointed ink ocean beneath hellish black cotton clouds, and a giant George W. Bush shitting on wailing families wrapping the suffering in an American flag -- effectively overwhelms any pretense of familiarity (and, fortunately, the accompanying rhyming verse, matching ‘stinky’ with ‘kinky’ and ‘hovels’ with ‘shovels’ and the like). Likewise, Matti Hagelberg continues to pursue his mix ‘n match fable-satires in much the same way he always has in these pages, teaming Hansel &Gretel with Ernst Blofeld for a Christmas adventure in unfettered capitalism - it’s a style that still makes me laugh, and little decline in pure technical chops is evident. In anyone, really.

There’s even a few pieces that emerge as especially striking. Peter & Maria Hoey present Out of Nowhere, a nicely-mounted text piece on a recording session involving Coleman Hawkins and Django Reinhardt, perfectly designed with a ghostly blue mix of period-specific fonts and cool character drawings. Marc Rosenthal coaxes some conceptual punch out of a silly, tiny strip about cigarette smoking trees and animals set against blurry tundra landscapes of vehicles and nature. And Geoffrey Grahn crafts a genuinely fine eight-page summary of the Dutch tulip craze of the 17th century, the formation of a shadow flower economy, rendered in delicate yellows and scratches, in full-page illustrations that emphasize the futility of human invention and the beauty of the natural state. Good craftsmanship, good thinking.

Ah, but there’s hardly anything revelatory in Blab!, which is another constant among the last few editions. It’s like seeing an old friend and realizing after a few minutes of conversation that while it’s obviously nice to see them, there’s maybe not a lot to catch up on between the two of you. I’ve been reading Blab! for a while; I can vividly recall a time when it was among the first comics-heavy anthologies I could easily locate at a chain bookstore (the same chain bookstore where I became a regular reader of this very magazine, lo those years ago), and I was greatly impressed by the variety of styles on display. This was after Blab! had set its format apparently in stone, so my beginning with the book is tied to its present.

But while I’m sometimes glad to feel I’ve been transported back to that day by this anthology’s attractive stasis, I’m forced to admit that it’s never quite the same, always working off a prior state deemed preferable, and that’s maybe not a line of thinking that ought to be prompted by a collection of cutting-edge comics and illustration. There’s nothing so wrong with Blab! as the feeling that nothing can go wrong, with all that thorough preservation.