Last weekend the Small Press Expo celebrated it’s 20th year of showcasing independent comics talent both up-and-coming and venerable. This year, Deadshirt staffers Dominic Griffin, Kayleigh Hearn, Yen Nguyen, and Max Robinson were in attendance and wrote about some of the amazing mini-comics, collaborative anthologies and full-fledged graphic novels that were available at the show.
Dom picked up…
The Legend of Ricky Thunder #2
by Kyle Starks
The Legend of Ricky Thunder #2 is was made as a stretch goal treat during the original Ricky Thunder kickstarter campaign. Kyle Starks, creator of Sexcastle, a fellow wrestling fan, and a contributor to Deadshirt’s A Long Halloween, told me he felt this short sequel was “indulgent,” but in its inventive brevity I think lies the platonic ideal of the sequel. Any time you enjoy a work of fiction, there’s the nagging desire for more. Some comics are designed to go on forever while others are better off quitting while the creator is ahead. Since a sequel is usually just a cash grab, it’s easy to just do what brought you to the dance but slightly differently and hope people don’t mind, but in twelve pages, Starks makes a great statement about going back to the well that simultaneously delivers an important lesson to wrestling promoters everywhere.
Picking up where the original left off, Ricky Thunder is still world champion and secretly fighting off intergalactic threats to protect the planet in his downtime. In the ring, he’s criticized for beating all of his opponents with his finishing move, the Thunderstrike, right off the bat. When a fellow grappler tells him “Matches are supposed to have stories, not bell rings followed by immediate victories” Ricky shrugs it off, only to be forced to rethink his strategy when faced with an alien opponent whose iron head makes him impervious to Ricky’s finisher. Ricky has to find another way to put him down, and in doing so, learns something. It’s such a simple little story, made fun by Starks’ clever, winking dialogue and smart panel composition (the Figure Four splash page is one of my favorite things ever) but it really resonated with me, as a guy who writes a wrestling column. Jay Z once said “…want my old shit? Buy my old albums.” People need something new, and Starks is a real mensnch for giving fans what they wanted without overstaying the welcome.
Paradoxicals #1 (Super-Secret Ashcan Preview Edition)
Written and lettered by Andrew Ihla
Art by Joe Hunter
I’ve been pretty amped for this project since I first started seeing teasers and hints on social media, but it’s still impressive how satisfying an eight page black and white preview can be. Ihla and Hunter, both Deadshirt contributors, have serious writer/artist chemistry (I would rate it a Gillen/McKelvie on the Lee/Kirby scale) and they waste no panels selling you on the premise of their new endeavor. Dr. Vladimir Veltman, an allegedly reformed supervillain, creates the means for time travel tourism, and an exploratory voyage is put together, captained by lovable rogue Roxy Valentine, a leading lady who, in a few short panels, is destined to be your new fave.
The rest of the crew will be filled out in the actual first issue, I imagine, and the full breadth of the series’ hook will present itself, but here we have a strong sense of tone and playful, efficient characterization. Hunter avails himself as impressively as ever, dispensing some exciting layouts and effective character acting. No time is wasted, and once it’s over you can’t wait to have more. Filling out the package with sketch art, as in-character essay by Roxy (that name checks David Bowie AND Michael Bay’s Armageddon) and a guest pin-up by JoJo Seames, the zine aesthetic of the ashcan really works, feeling as much like a calling card as an early sneak peek. If you enjoy witty sci-fi, keep your eyes peeled for when Paradoxicals drops in full.
Rookery: Urban Legends and Myth
SPX is always good for anthologies, and this one from an artist collective formed at the School of Visual Arts delivers a variety of styles, tones, and voices in a slick package stamped with an approving recommendation from David Mazzucchelli. Everyone takes turns with 2-4 page shorts reinterpreting myths and old tales as a reconstruction of the nature of storytelling.
There’s a Little Red Riding Hood story from Hazel Newlevant that casts a new shade of complexity over the interrelation between the wolf and Hood with an ending as ambiguous as it is thought provoking. Steph Bailey’s “Rattlesnake Ridge” is a well drawn take on the Devil and the fiddle that possesses a Western lyricism reminiscent of Emma Rios’ Pretty Deadly art. Jessica Hurley imbues “How The Coyotes Placed The Stars” with a sense of wonder and charm that wouldn’t be out of place in a Pixar short, the coyotes themselves shining with the joy of invention I imagine the artist felt while creating this short. My personal favorite is the opening strip, an unconventional mermaid tale by Molly Ostertag that uses the aquatic legend to express a unique metaphor for nostalgia and early sexual exploration. She does in three pages and fifteen panels what The Decemberists might have stretched into an entire concept album.
Yen picked up…
by Rebecca Mock
As a master of the animated GIF, Rebecca Mock is a leader in the field of making images pop and catch your eye. Solid Sight is her self-published zine which aims to prove her comprehensive magic over such things in the analog realm as well, setting aside the digital bounciness of her animations for the stillness of the stereogram.
The booklet contains twelve stereoscopic images: one original test image that serves as a prologue of sorts and eleven images of rooms and outdoor city spaces that feel empty but for the presence of an unknown somebody, sometimes visible and sometimes not. In Mock’s description of her zine, she writes that “the viewer walks through an abandoned film roll, searching for the subject of the ‘photographs’, but finds only ghosts.” Searching each pair of images yields subtle hints. The shadows might be slightly off from one image to the next or, in some cases, a background figure will be missing altogether.
Of course, the best part of a stereogram is putting those images together. Each left page prefaces the stereogram on the right with a few words. These varied bits of prose, quotations, and dialogues give you something to dwell upon while you unfocus your eyes and patiently concentrate on getting just the right overlap. Mock’s wonderfully clean lines and angles, coupled with her great knowledge of lighting, have always made her compositions seem like canny establishing shots in a particularly well-shot drama. Seeing them lift from the page is a delight. But when all’s said and done, Mock’s true visual triumph with Solid Sight is that all those slight discrepancies do indeed shimmer like ghosts.
Wicked Chicken Queen
by Sam Alden
Retrofit/Big Planet Comics
After winning the 2013 Ignatz Award for “Promising New Talent,” Sam Alden went on to validate that title in the way everyone hoped he would: by having a prolific 2014 output of ever-increasing quality and ambition. Returning to SPX a year later with a bunch of new work, his Wicked Chicken Queen earned him the 2014 Ignatz for “Outstanding Comic,” proving twice over that Alden was an artist well worth following in the indie comics scene.
The comic tells the story of a people, marooned on an island, who discover an egg that hatches into a gigantic chicken. Most of the story is told with a fairy tale tinge, lightly chronicling the maturation of this fantastical hen and the life she leads among the people. The king takes her in as his own daughter and she eventually marries the girl who found her egg, Saskia, and becoming queen when the king passes away.
The story is told through a sequence of page-filling compositions paired with a bit of narration. Each page is a lovingly crowded expanse of natural and architectural forms that seem very inspired by Escher’s impossible spaces; his famous staircases and archways are littered throughout the island’s constantly shifting topography. The setting’s coastline, peaks, and mountain paths change from page to page, urging the reader to explore and unpack the little details of each composition in a new way.
When Saskia dies, the chicken queen becomes morose and the world of the story modernizes. The narration quickly forgets the magical story of the chicken queen, becoming more focused on the more temporal worries of modern life: work, school, and the feeling of incompleteness. The compositions become more jumbled, with the vignettes separated by harsh lines in place of the fairy tale island’s smooth curves. Eventually, the previously soft and whimsically anthropomorphized chicken queen returns in a form that is every bit an inspired monster design, earning the comic its title.
Even though the words are set apart from his images, Alden’s writing is ultimately intertwined with his art. Both his gentle fairy tale prose and bald everyday language feel like extensions of his pencil style. Rough, quick, and loose, but undeniably confident and focused on the big picture. Here’s hoping Sam Alden has a wonderful 2015.
Kayleigh picked up…
Actual Terrifying Vintage Animals: A Documentation
Featuring a sickly neon green cover of a jewel-eyed cat, Actual Terrifying Vintage Animals is exactly what it sounds like. This mini-comic is a collection of illustrations based on “real items at Berkeley Springs Antique Mall” including sad, lumpy stuffed animals, ugly pig salt and pepper shakers, and a life-sized dog cast in iron. Did people once find these soulless objects of horror cute or charming? Why? How? Kelsey Sunday’s art is adept at capturing the strange awkwardness of these antique finds and Actual Terrifying Vintage Animals is a funny, quick dose of kitsch.
Rotland Dreadfuls no. 10: Sadistic Comics
by R. Sikoryak
As its title suggests, the Rotland Dreadful series is a comic book homage to 19th century penny dreadfuls; an apt comparison, since comics and penny dreadfuls have been similarly dismissed by literary gatekeepers as cheaply-produced, meritless trash. Sadistic Comics is a mash-up of the Marquis de Sade’s novel Justine and Sensation Comics, in the form of retro-styled comic book covers starring Just Justine, who happens to look an awful lot like Wonder Woman, but with the fleur-de-lis on her shorts instead of stars.
Jokes about Golden Age Wonder Woman, and the bondage themes introduced by her creator William Moulton Marston, are really damn old at this point, so I wondered if Sadistic Comics had anything new to say. Thankfully the comic doesn’t take the easy route of becoming actual pornography–aside from brief bloodshed and pantlessness, it’s pretty tame, and is more interested in the pulpy sensationalism on which both penny dreadfuls and Golden Age comics thrived. (“Oh, Father, I shall never accept this savage lubricity!” proclaims Just Justine, in chains, of course.) R. Sikoryak skillfully imitates Harry George Peter’s classic Wonder Woman art, and though it’s not groundbreaking commentary, his commitment to parody makes Sadistic Comics an interesting read.
Finder: Third World
Finder: Third World shows what happens when longtime protagonist Jaeger–a roguish “finder” with a near-superhuman gift for hunting and tracking–gets a real job. Frustrated by years of shady dealings, Jaeger takes a job at X Ray’s Couriers. At first it seems like an ideal gig, given his skill set (there’s no place Jaeger can’t find, or a package he can’t deliver) but in McNeil’s complex, post-apocalyptic world, danger lurks on every doorstep. And then, the Finder loses something.
Originally serialized in Dark Horse Presents, Finder: Third World is a slender but dense book, packed with immense detail and incisive characterization. There are few writer-artists in the industry as bursting with ideas as Carla Speed McNeil, and there’s something amazing on every page, whether it’s an airship designed like a Chinese dragon or ominous Men in Black with only swirly thumbprints for faces. She’s also a master of unique, diverse character designs; any “Top 10 Comic Hunks” list that doesn’t include Jaeger up there alongside Gambit and Nightwing is garbage. (That first page of Jaeger, smoking and smoldering at the employment agency while wearing a bloody suit? Damn.) Third World is also the first Finder book to be published in full color, and Jenn Manley Lee and Bill Mudron do an excellent job of capturing the book’s vivid tone.
Unfortunately the book doesn’t quite assume a cohesive form; some of the adventures, particularly Jaeger’s early, paranormal courier jobs, possibly read better as anthologized short stories. (They even reference Shirley Jackson!) Nevertheless, Finder: Third World is a challenging and rewarding read, one I’ll be thinking about for days.
Max picked up…
Weird: A VCU Student Comics Anthology
Weird, a free comics anthology offered from the students and alumni of Virginia Commonwealth University, distinguishes itself with a handful of really cool, really creepy short comics. “Eyes” by Erin Bushnell is a disarmingly subtle horror comic about a college student and her girlfriend’s worrying fascination with eyes that never quite lets you close enough. That sounds like a criticism, but the reality is that the story’s refusal to opt for a twist ending or even out-and-out supernatural elements makes it stronger. Bushnell’s characters, with their rounded lines, look like they belong in a more straightforward “college slice of life” comic, and the way they play off of the story’s sinister, inexpressible undertones is intriguing.
“Beware of Dog” by Tres Dean and Melissa Duffy is a very straightforward, EC Comics-y six pager that executes a simple concept really well and culminates in a penultimate page that is impressively, gleefully gory.
Hands down the highlight of the collection is “Vampire Mom” by Maddie C. Bursting with snappy comedic timing, “Vampire Mom” feels like a snippet from a much larger story I’d love to read some day. C breathes an impressive amount of life into her three character cast, utilizing the eight pages at her disposal to show off a barrage of colorful expressions as a secret vampire attempts to hide her feeding from two inquisitive human daughters.
by Kyle Starks
Kyle Starks’ new-for-SPX offering was a mini called Butts about how great butts are. There’s some puns in there too. There’s not really much more to say about it than that but the nice thing about mini-comics is you can do stuff like this and it’s a fun little showcase of Starks’ signatures and flourishes. And butts.
If This Be Sin
Published through Prism Comics’ Queer Press Grant
If This Be Sin showcases the experiences of gay women, both fictional and historical, with a decidedly asymmetrical symmetry. While depicting wholly different women and experiences (the first two tales are biographical comics about the lives of blues singer Gladys Bentley and Prince and The Revolution bandmates/lovers Wendy and Lisa, the third focuses on a woman named Carita’s forray into competitive ballroom dance), If This Be Sin is unified thematically by a profound sense of loss and disappointment. From Bentley’s eventual retreat to a traditional gender identity to Carita’s dashed hopes for a first date, Newlevant celebrates the strength of her lesbian characters amidst what’s ultimately failure.
Pick up any cool comics at SPX? Let us know!