A few words about every story in 'Alternative Comics' #4

Alternative Comics, the publisher of alternative comics, is back in business, with two big releases of note this month: Failure, a collection of Karl Stevens' remarkably illustrated comic strips from the Boston Phoenix, and Alternative Comics #4, the latest installment of its showcase anthology (the first three issues were released as Free Comic Book Day giveaways, with the third issue shipping way back in 2005).

The new iteration isn't free (in fact, it's a $5.99, 48-page book), and it's not coming out on Free Comic Book Day, but it is bigger, newer and perhaps even improved. To find that out, we'll have to take a closer look at this book, edited by Marc Arsenault and featuring a lovely cover by Mike Bertino.

Here then, are a few words about every single story in Alternative Comics #4:

"Talent Goes In" by Sam Alden This is a four-panel, inside-front-cover strip by Alden, which amounts to little more than a picture poem. It's not terribly profound or even substantial but that's okay, it's only the inside front cover. Alden has a better strip later in the book.

"Am I Alive?" by James KochalkaThis is the first of two Kochalka contributions, a two-pager in the cartoonist's familiar autobiographical oeuvre (you know, daily, sometimes-mundane slice-of-life stuff .. .only the author draws himself as an elf).

It reads a bit like an extra-long installment of Kochalka's sadly retired American Elf strip, and I guess it actually kinda sorta is. It's notable for its choose-your-own-adventure component, and for its anti-drinking message, which I might have just totally inferred from it, as it makes being hung over seem less than appealing.

"Incidental Comics" by Grant SniderThe first of Snider's comics included is a page-long piece illustrating a meeting of sorts of the Frustrated Artists Society, in which various frustrated artists share their frustrations variously. I'm familiar with frustrated writers and frustrated cartoonists, but I never realized how many kinds of frustrated artists there are!

"Hallelujah!" by Noah Van SciverThe Blammo cartoonist and brother of a popular super-comics artist presents a two-page strip about a day in the life of a 19th-century cartoonist — you know, the good old days of cartooning, when it was an honest and revered profession. Coupled with Van Sciver's comic about traveling back to the 1990s, I think it's safe to say he may be one of the greatest cartoonists making cartoons about cartoonists traveling through time of his generation.

"When I Was Ten" by AldenHere's the other Alden piece. It's also sort of a comics-poem, but a more observant, more true, more universal and more elegantly communicated one. It sorta broke my heart a little, which is something of a feat to accomplish in just two pages.

"Incidental Comics" by SniderHim again. This is a one-page strip broken up into panels and it's about a time machine. It's kind of funny, but as it involves a character climbing inside a refrigerator, I don't think it's safe for children to read.

"Blobby Boys" by Alex SchubertHere are four pages of Schubert's Blobby Boys comics. There's an almost Axe Cop-like, written-by-a-child feel to the story, only with some adult cynicism mixed in. Schubert's bold, machine-precise image-making, in which every character and object looks like something that could be a logo for something, is hard to describe, but easy to appreciate.

"Frothy Beveraged Man" by Andy Ristaino Attention all you cool kids who like Adventure Time! Do you know who Ristaino is? Well, yes, he's the guy who did the SLG comic Escape From Dullsville. But do you know what his day job is? It's working on Adventure Time!

As for Frothy Beveraged Man, imagine Kool-Aid Man, if instead of a pitcher of food-coloring, artificial flavoring and water, he was instead a pitcher of beer. That's the premise for these four, page-long comic strips about underage drinking, alcoholism and drunk driving. It's as dark, funny and "Is that too dark to be funny?" as you might expect, with Ristaino's super-cute character designs softening the sting.

"Googlism" by David LaksyThe visual component of this one-page strip involves what appears to be Spock from Star Trek at various ages and from various movies saying things Laksy might have found when Googling himself ...? I don't know, I don't watch Star Trek.

"Inkstuds" by Robin McConnell with LaskyAre you familiar with the Inkstuds podcast? Well now it's a column in Alternative Comics in addition to being a podcast. Lasky is the first artist featured. Comics interviews? In print? It'll never catch on.

"The Ultimate Superman Comic" by LaskyAt six panels, this is a bit longer than the origin story Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely provided in the first issue of All-Star Superman, another "ultimate" Superman comic, but it also deals with some slightly more relevant aspects of the Superman story, particularly to comics creators and readers.

It's pretty damn depressing. But not as depressing as that Man of Steel moviewas. 

"Buried Secrets" by SniderAs with the frustrated artists piece, this is a one-page comic of sorts consisting of single large illustration, with with artificial "panels" created in it. It's funny. Because it's true.

"Lost and Found" by Allison Cole This is a cute, quiet comic about a cat. It's OK. (I think that would make an excellent blurb on the back of a future Cole comic. "It's OK.")

"Checklist for an Epic Summer" by SniderSnider sure contributed a lot of one-pagers to this collection, something that becomes more apparently when you try to write a few words about every single story in the comic than when you're simply reading through it. This is a list of 12 things a teenager could and perhaps should do during the summer. I don't agree with the one about annihilating a Ninja Turtle, but Snider draws a pretty sweet Raphael.

"Grapes Hawthorne" by Sam HendersonSam Henderson, of Magic Whistle fame, is probably one of the funniest cartoonists alive, with his only real rival being perhaps Johnny Ryan. I base this on the fact that those are the only two cartoonists whom all of my roommates and all of our guests seemed to to not only find amusing, but to find laugh-out-loud, giggle-till-tears hysterical, back when I was in my 20s and lived with two to four other guys in  a big, rundown house in Columbus, Ohio.

I had stacks of comics sitting on the coffee table, on end tables, in random corners of the house, in kitchen cupboards, on the mantle, wherever, and Ryan and Henderson's were the only comics anyone ever picked up and would read from start to finish, laughing the entire time.

This is a two-page comic by Henderson, of the so-unfunny-it's-kind-of-hilarious variety.

Grapes Hawthorne is an excellent name.

"Email" by KochalkaThis is a 12-page, black-and-white comic by Kochalka in which two strange character s—I think they're supposed to be fungi, maybe?— discuss computers and email, which to them means something quite different than it does to us (or, at least it does to the smaller of the two figures; the taller one might just be playing along). It reminded me of Kochalka's charming Johnny Boo kids' comics for Top Shelf, only slightly weirder, on account of the character designs.

"The 70s: Weren't They Crazy?" and "Don't Ever Eat Anything Ever" by HendersonMore Sam Henderson! A series of seven single-panel, single-gag cartoons, featuring Henderson's deceptively simple-looking figures and their surprisingly complex gag-selling expressions.

"Incidental Comics" by SniderAnother one! This one's about writing, and is thus very depressing.

"Flomgart's Departure" by Theo Ellsworth and Craig ThompsonI have no idea what's going on in this six-panel, back-cover, full-color comic strip, but it sure as hell looks awesome.

So were you reading along with your own copy of Alternative Comics #4? Did you enjoy the book? If so, good news — you shouldn't have to wait a few years before the next issue comes out. The publisher's plan is to release an issue twice a year, so No. 5 should be along in just about six months or so.

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