Remember: There's Never an Apostrophe in Kramers

Kramers Ergot 6

As you’re no doubt already aware, Kramers Ergot is a very highly acclaimed anthology of comics, probably most famous for its engagement with creators who’d mainly been known in minicomics circles prior to being published in a big, thick, colorful book of this sort. Which isn’t to say that getting published in Kramers is some sort of mainstream big time -- I’ve rarely even seen copies in comics stores, forget about chain bookstores -- but Kramers does have a particular force of presence on the scene, an authority of production let’s say, and it’s carved out a name for itself among comics anthologies as probably the most cutting-edge and forward-looking and consistently high-quality, always willing to show you something you’ve never seen before.

All this was accomplished over essentially three volumes (Kramers 4 being when the title unquestionably hit its mature form), from the mind of publisher/editor Sammy Harkham, who’s now joined in this volume by an associate editor, Alvin Buenaventura, and a co-publisher, Buenaventura Press. Kramers Ergot 6 is 336 pages of mostly color work, 8.75” x 10.75”, for $34.95, yet it still retains the close-knit love of a tiny project. Maybe part of its appeal is that it’s a testament to what a few interested people can accomplish through hard work and dedication, something that can stand tall production-wise with anything a large publisher can manage, yet reflect an idiosyncratic, avant-garde taste in what’s worth publishing.

In terms of content, Kramers 6 marks a turn back to some of the less narrative, more purely visual works of Kramers 4. That’s not to say there isn’t a great variety of styles on display (even within the hopelessly indelicate categories of ‘visual’ and ‘narrative’); Harkham’s and Buenaventura’s tastes are too wide-ranging to even get the book locked into any particular form of comic, and the variety of approaches on display is still quite vast. But there’s a bit more emphasis on purely visual work, and even the more straightforward narratives seem interested in breaking up their flow and telling their stories through temporally disconnected snatches of story. This is evident in Harkham’s own contribution, Lubavich, Ukraine 1876, which follows a few events in the life of (presumably) an ancestor of Harkham’s, a Jew in the titular region. Lots of carefully observed character moments and much attention paid to historical-cultural detail, though the story is far more interested in presenting cuts of experience than any overarching plot.

But Harkham is nothing if not visually direct, his eleven pages perfectly clean in twelve panels per page. The same goes for Ron Regé, Jr., whose story Fuc 1997 otherwise could not be more different; his is sixteen pages with tight grids of varying size, and entirely concerned with romantic relationships, metaphoric or (seemingly) autobiographical. But even though Regé’s work is as bright and color-coded as can be, ultra-cute characters frolicking around with a theremin (the music of love!) and prancing through fields, there’s a similar motive at work: conveying the experience of living in a very particular time and place though fragments of authentic-seeming life and unassuming formal properties. A lot of works in Kramers have this sort of mutual understanding between them, and stories often seem positioned to compliment one another’s themes and approaches, resulting in a great sense of coherency to what’s fundamentally a very diverse group of works.

To give another example, two of my very favorite stories in this volume are placed right next to each other. First there’s the brilliantly-titled Ejector Seat Cadence by Bald Eagles (alter ego of one Victor Cayro), an absolutely stunning blend of art polemic, confessional autobiography, macho pop culture free-associating, and feverish, twisting b&w visuals of writhing muscles and flesh and blazing guns, brushes of red blood and yellow fire coursing through everything. If anyone ever felt like Kramers Ergot could use more gunfights and near-abstract combat scenes, they’ll be happy with this; it’s the only contribution that could have been equally at home in Robert Crumb’s Weirdo or Tim Vigil’s Raw Media Mags. Pages are constantly clogged with mental flotsam, whether words or images. Classic movie villain Clarence Boddicker (of RoboCop) shows up as a recurring manifestation of everything awful in the world, and Cayro draws inspiration from the likes of John McClain to transform himself in Bald Eagles, an S. Clay Wilson fever dream of an action superhero that’s both a defense mechanism against the shit of the world and a living embodiment of artistic ferocity.

And then, right after that, there’s Paper Rad. Which couldn’t initially seem more different, but Harkham’s and Buenaventura’s positioning of the work reveals how much it has in common with Cayro’s work: an eagerness to apply beloved pieces of popular culture to the creation of a personal cosmology, even a spirituality. The results are vastly different, but then Kramers Ergot wouldn’t be much if it wasn’t diverse. Paper Rad’s effort is titled Kramers Ergot: Fuck You, but it quickly becomes evident that it’s Kramers Ergot telling something to the world, not Paper Rad making a declaration toward Kramers Ergot. The story (as it is) concerns Kramer from Seinfeld, who consumes a bit of Ergot (a mold known to grow on bread that gives the consumer hallucinations), and becomes aware of the possibilities of art beyond Jerry’s apartment, a familiar character literally deciding to voyage away to something different.

There much more to be found. We also get two excellent bits of contrasting historical comics (all of them gorgeously re-lettered in English by Tim Hensley): selected pages from the gentle, surreal Dutch underground work of Marc Smeets, and a generous 30-page slab of the pure pop manga stylings of Suihô Tagawa, one of the pre-Tezuka Japanese comics artists and a brilliant stylist from before the Tezuka cinema influence, his furious funny animal combat comics no less impressive for being obvious militaristic propaganda aimed at children from straight out the pre-WWII era, but certainly a good deal more disconcerting.

And then, right after Tagawa, a similarly flat-visualed work by Souther Salazar, done in an impressive collage style, and almost as ominous as the prior work, but in a slightly softer way. Later on we’ll see more fabulously surreal visions of war and destruction of Elvis Studio. Past and present is drawn together across cultures by this book; the act of reading from start to finish is more sheer experience than with any other comics anthology I can name. It’s almost too much, but it doesn’t seem like enough when you’re done. You’ll only want more of Shary Boyle’s stunning drawings of fantastical debauchery, or Dan Zettwoch’s detail-oriented tales of contraptions and the people who construct them. Kramers Ergot is big, but the next one can never arrive soon enough.