November 20, 2009

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Blab! 18

Written and Illustrated by Various Creators
Edited by Monte Beauchamp
Fantagraphics

For being a company that puts out the reprints of one of the safest comics of all time, Peanuts, Fantagraphics sure lives on the edge of the comics medium, particularly in the realm of anthologies.

Blab! is just such an anthology, featuring a variety of visual quirks that hover closer to straight up art pieces than comics work, but still do not seem out of place with the more narrative pieces that slide between the pictorial pages.

(For the record, I define art pieces as unrelated pictures that have no direct connection and comics as artwork that has a narrative drive of some kind. That's not a perfect definition, as there are obviously exceptions, but I think it will help over the course of this review.)

Unlike a lot of the anthologies I've read recently, there is no theme to Blab!--it merely collects those items catching the attention of Beauchamp, at least as far as I can tell. A story about believing internet spam might be side by side with a mock Playboy cartoon, for example. More traditional comic tales might run nine pages, while others get only a few pages to give you their story. In other hands, this might be a problem for the reader, but Beauchamp's arrangement skills make it work somehow, at least for me.

As with my other anthology reviews, I'm only going to highlight the stories I liked best. However, there's probably someone for everyone in Blab!, if you take the time to look. So don't be surprised if you like something better than I did or vice-versa.

Bob Staake's highly visual "Hugh Got Mail" plays with page layout in a way that would make Eisner's head spin, but never once is the story too confusing to follow. Hugh is a man who believes in the possibility of a spam e-mail, and gets a result rather different from Gene Luen Yang's protagonist with the same problem. The ending is priceless, especially Hugh's expression.

I rather like the trick of splitting a story across an anthology, and in this case, Beauchamp uses Randall Enos' mock cartoon instructions for that effect. What might have been less enjoyable strung together works well with a break. Join a rather dubious instructor as he takes your money and leads you on a trip into the cartoon art work, with a 4th-wall breaking bird in tow. My favorite might be the gag about putting together panels in an interesting manner, given my love for oddball layouts.

"The Ever Elusive Yeti" by Mark Todd uses a distorted page effect to create a sense of mystery around the idea of a Yeti leg amputated and neglected over time, until it's thrown out by a janitor. While nothing is amazing, I do love the image of a hobbled Yeti with a giant crutch.

I am a sick bastard.

Esther Pearl Watson provides some one-panel ghost stories in "Caspers" that use folk-art homages to add to the homey atmosphere of ghosts who might just want to make you a cure for the common cold. I find folk art fascinating, so this one appealed to me.

Referring to Dali also appeals to me, as does mini golf, so Steven Guarnaccia didn't have to work very hard to win me over with his short tale of a man known for his mad design skills in the world of putt-putt. I think this might be my favorite from the anthology.

"An Elephant Never Forgets" by Sue Coe and Kim Stallwood is an interesting contribution, as it reads in the style of a coffee table history book or perhaps an old encyclopedia entry, complete with numbers for the artwork and accompanying text. I wonder if this is a true story of the cruelty of circus owners and a wild animal's tragic fate?

Serge Bloch ends my run of personal highlights with the tale of the evil pea race and their desire to eliminate all unpure legumes from the dinner table. The satire is a bit disturbing in a few places, but I like it when an artist uses three-dimensional objects as part of their creative toolbox.

I do not feel entirely qualified to review the more artistic pieces, other than to say generally I thought they were very well done and I would be happy to go see any of the at an art exhibit someday. Fred Stonehouse's "The Widow's Garden" section features skeletal portaits juxtaposed with unrelated objects, while "Helper" by Tim Biskup also uses a skeletal theme, but with a far different result.

I found "Krampus One" and "Krampus Two" by Travis Louie really amusing, because of its variation on a popular artistic conceit. I think you'll be amused too, so I won't give it away.

If mini-golf was my favorite of the stories, then "Brides of Science" was my favorite of the art prints. Providing a series of either pulp novel covers or b-movie posters (your choice), Ryan Heshka captures a moment in time so perfectly I'd almost believe they were real. If you pulled these out of context I think you'd be fooled, which is a tribute to the artist. (For some samples of his work, you can check out his website, but note that the art is NSFW.)

While I admit that at first I was a bit unsure if I'd like Blab!, I came out of the experience feeling like I had gotten the chance to sample some work that I'd not normally read at first blush. I think that if an anthology can do that, it's succeeding very well.

That being said, you have to come into this one with an open mind. If you like your comics a particular way--i.e. more traditionally formatted or drawn, even if they're small press--then you'd probably be better looking elsewhere. My 2005 reading taste (to say nothing of my 1995 reading taste!) would probably have given this a very different review.

Then again, you don't know if you don't try. Sampling Blab! 18 (or any of the other Blab! collections) might just be a great place to start!