September 8, 2014

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SPX Spotlight/Rose City Roll Call 2014: The Irene Anthology

Welcome to another entry in the 2014 SPX Spotlight series!  For the next month, Panel Patter will be highlighting creators and publishers who will be at one of the best conventions, the Small Press ExpoYou can check out all of Panel Patter's spotlights for SPX from both this year and prior years here.

Rose City Roll Call! Cambot! Gypsy! Tom Servo! Croooooow! Periscope! Dark Horse! Kurt Busiek! Ooooooooooonnnnni! It's another Panel Patter feature on creators and publishers who will be at Rose City Comic Con! You can find all our features for the show right here!

Everyone knows I am a fan of anthologies, especially those curated by mini-comics folks. I had the pleasure of reading the third Irene anthology a little while back, but I wasn't able to reviewed it as quickly as I had planned. So since there will be creators involved in the Irene anthologies series at both the Small Press Exp and Rose City Comic-Con, I figured what better time than now?

Irene is edited by Andy Warner, dw, and Dakota McFadzean, and along with their own contributions, collect work from others in the mini-comics field. Contributors for issues three, four, and five include Sophie Goldstein, Emi Gennis, Georgia Webber, Ben Juers, and R. Sikoryak, among others. The experience of the creators involved varies from those who are new to the craft to long-time industry veterans. This makes it similar to MOME, which I know I lean on a lot for comparisons, but it really was, I think, one of the best models for an indie comics anthology, so I tend to think of things in terms of "Does this follow that model?"

Art by Luke Howard
In the case of issue three, the contributors include Warner, dw, and McFadzean, along with Alabaster, Ben Horak, Leif Goldberg, Mark Connery, D. Rinylo, Sophie Goldstein, Barrack Rima, Jess Worbly, and Luke Howard. The entries vary from a few pages to a little over thirty pages. There are no set themes to the volume, so the stories range from the opening story, "Gin," by Alabaster, in which a girl is in love with an alpaca but is unable to fully connect to him because of the species difference to the closing story, Luke Howard's "Dance Yourself to Death" where a man is fascinated by an art exhibit and learns that the only way to unlock your true creativity is to give yourself up for public sacrifice. The latter story is a haunting literal interpretation of the metaphor.

Artistically, the two could not be more different, either. Alabaster's style is claustrophobic, with small panels all over the page, filled to the brim with characters and details, almost all done as close-up work. Howard, on the other hand, uses alternating looks, pushing the reader as far back as possible, then driving them close to the action again. He repeats images and themes, and the panels themselves use shapes as much as characters to set up the action. There's a lot of framing going on, too.

That variety carries across the other stories as well. A few of my favorites in the third book include:

  • "The Sasquatch in Brooklyn" by Jess Warby, in which people are interviewed about the creature's life in the middle of the city. Done in a loose, sketchy manner with all the kind of people you might find in a documentary, I thought the conceit worked really well.
  • "Edna II" by Sophie Goldstein is a haunting story of a man who has nothing but his robotic pack mule. When the machine breaks, so does his life, and he's unable to handle going on. Set some time in the future, the focus is squarely on the main character, who is drawn to be thin and haggard. We see his daily life, and it's not so much living as it is existence. By the time there's a rare snowfall and he sits out in it, stark naked, not sure what to do, you want to weep for him. Great work.
  • "Find Sleepy" is a really silly short, where the creator, Dan Rinylo, places Pac-Man ghosts all over the page. It's the kind of thing that's perfect for an anthology.
  • Those who like experimental work will enjoy "Nap Before Noon" from Barrack Rima, where the art is a mix of drawing and collage, as the figures in the dream become more like shapes instead of distinct items. They're spread across the page, with each representing the narration, which of course wanders and loses focus, because it's a dream.

Issue four of Irene has a great cover by editor Andy Warner, in which a female cartoonist is drawing these small creatures who form the entire, pink-tinged background. It carries on to the back, where a young man is being instructed on how to properly draw the same characters. This time around the contributors are Warner, dw, and McFadzen again, along with Emi Gennis, James Hindle, Amy Lockhart, Laura Terry, Carlista Martin, Mazen Kerbaj, Jai Granofsky, Power Paola, Jackie Roche, Luke Howard, Georgia Webber, Jan Berger and Ben Juers.

This edition of the anthology is a bit more heavily focused on drawing than telling a story. There are still narrative pieces, highlighted by the autobiographical work of Webber, discussing how technology puts her on a level playing field given her vocal chord damage (as part of her "Dumb" series), with the the narrative mixing across illustrations of how Webber feels or showing her using technology to communicate. The perception drawings she draws about invisible disability, where the dual human figure and a loose drawing of herself are side by side, with notes, is really haunting.

The star of this one, though, are Ben Juer's buffer drawings, which come in between the other stories and are a ton of fun. They're about as absurdist as you can get, but they are drawn to look normal, and resemble 1950s art deco figures. A man plays pool with the head of his opponent as a cue ball, lining up against an explosive 8 ball, for example. In another, a man pleads to save his accordion from an angry music critic. My favorite might be the dueling cowboys, one of whom kills with a ventriloquist's dummy holding a comically giant gun. They're so much fun, especially if you're a fan of Mad Magazine or Sam Henderson or others that do similar work.

Other contributions I enjoyed included:

  • Emi Ginnis chronicles the natural disaster that occurred near Lake Nyos in Cameroon, in which noxious gas led to countless dead. I'm a big fan of non-fiction comics (as is editor Warner, who does them very well), and Ginnis is able to capture the main details and the horror by portraying it straightforward, detailing moments from the history and showing the emotional toil for the survivors.
  • In another non-fiction story, "Black Boots" by Jackie Roche, we learn the story of the man who lived in the room where Lincoln died. It's not something you hear about often, especially the fact that this person actually controlled some of the artifacts we might have lost forever. It's a little text-heavy for an adaptation, but the pictures work perfectly, like showing him looking under the bed to see what might be there or a line of people looking to see where the president breathed his last.
  • "Yellow Plastic" features a boy falling into the orbit of a strange girl with a fascination for fire. It turns out she has a tragic history that he learns too late, as she's abruptly moved away from him. James Hindle's linework reminds me of a more restrained Mahfood, where there the lines don't quite touch each other but form pictures and images. 

Being honest, I thought the fourth issue was a bit weaker than issue three. I still enjoyed it, but there were too many "drawings" sections instead of actual stories for my taste. I tend to enjoy sketches and solo pictures the best once I've already become familiar with a creator's sequential work. Without that introduction, it's harder for me to appreciate the style that goes into them. That doesn't meant I didn't like Irene 4, but I do hope to see more narrative work when issue five comes out later this year.

Not everyone is a fan of anthologies. After all, there's almost no situation in which you are going to like every story. However, anyone who appreciates a wide variety of art that can be about true events as much as fanciful tales where a band fights for its life to play a gig, and enjoy it when artists push the boundaries of narrative stories,  Irene  is something you definitely need to grab at either SPX or Rose City, depending on where you'll see them.

Can't make either show? You can buy Irene directly from the editors here.