Review time! with some self-published comics!

Yep, I have some comics to review, from people just out there doing their things. Comics are awesome, people!

Black/White by Andrez Bergen, with art by Drezz Rodriguez, Michael Grills, Nathan St. John, Andrew Chiu, Marcos Vergara, and Andrez Bergen.

I decided to start this post with a couple of comics that frustrated me, and I'm pretty sure it's because I'm not too bright. Both Black/White and the next volume feature some very interesting stuff in them, but for some reason, most of them don't really connect with me. Bergen is a good writer - this is the third thing he's been nice enough to send to me, and I liked the first two things - but the stories in this anthologies seem more like thought experiments, exercises with language and art rather than fully-realized stories.

Maybe they're meant to be, but I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing some subtext that will make it all clear to me. That makes the book frustrating.

I'll go through the stories quickly, to give you an idea why I feel this way. "Zig Zag," which is a prose story with spot illustrations by Drezz Rodriguez, is a first-person account of a man cleaning an old gun while someone watches and occasionally comments on it. The story "zig zags" a bit at the end, but not too much, and I'm not quite sure why the narrator is cleaning the gun and why it matters that it's such an old gun. Rodriguez uses stark blocks of black and white to create his drawings, and it matches the tone of the story, but again, I'm not sure what we're supposed to get from it except that the narrator really knows how to clean a gun.

In "Get Busy," with art by Marcos Vergara, a bartender watches three people go into a bathroom in a nightclub, and it appears that they all come out. One of them seems to be a regular customer, and he goes to the bar and drinks while the bartender asks him a couple of innocuous questions. Then the bartender goes into the bathroom and finds something that I guess it supposed to explain what happened in there, but I don't get it. What does it mean? Do I not spend enough time in bar bathrooms? Vergara has a good, cartoony style that makes the encounter a bit more absurd than maybe it should be, and he uses grayscales and white inks quite well to create an interesting look to the story. But I still don't get it.

The next story, "Linoleum Actress," is the best one in the book, mainly because it has a fairly obvious plot (despite a weird final page). The narrator is talking about his girlfriend, who is wandering around their apartment while he sits on the sofa.

For some reason, he's not moving very much, and Bergen does a nice job in a few pages creating tension and making us wonder what's going on before he gives the answer. Michael Grills does a fine job with the art, using brush strokes to make the woman drop-dead sexy in a satin dress while still showing her ugly nature slowly coming through. He also uses paint splatter cleverly as the story reaches its end. It's a keen noir tale.

Then we get "The Writing on the Wall," which begins as a public service announcement about the evils of graffiti (okay, I'm kidding, but only a little) and turns into ... what? I'm not sure. A woman catches two people spray painting a wall, and she warns them off just before some evil dudes with knives turn up. Why are they there? I don't know. Nathan St. John's almost woodcut-style art actually works pretty well with the tone of the story, as it seems to take place in some kind of post-apocalyptic world, but I still don't really get what's going on in the story.

Bergen himself draws "Waiting for Sod All," in which a woman is dying from an undisclosed illness and believes she's no longer in love with her husband. In the end, it seems like she calls someone to come and kill her, but I'm not sure, nor am I sure who she actually calls. Why wouldn't she just commit suicide? Why wouldn't she ask her husband to kill her? What does not loving her husband anymore have to do with her sickness? I don't know.

Finally, Andrew Chiu draws "Come Out Swinging," a single-page story (told in 9 panels). Chiu's art is solid - he has a crisp line and he knows how to choreograph a fight - but again, I'm not quite sure what's going on. A man rescues a woman from another man, who had tied her to a chair and gagged her.

But is this something that happens often? Is it some sort of game among the two, or even the three of them? I really don't know - Bergen's script implies that there's something a bit weirder going on, but I can't figure out what it is.

Part of the problem with the book is that it features 6 stories in 25 pages, which isn't a lot of time to get things squared away. Four pages isn't bad for a gag comic, where all you're doing is telling a joke, but Bergen, it seems, is going for something deeper in these stories, and there's just not enough room for him to explore everything he wants to. The writing is good - Bergen has a good way with a phrase, and he uses precise words that give us a clear picture of characters, such as the gun cleaner in the first story or the woman in "Linoleum Actress," but in this comic, that's all we get. If he was just doing some character sketches, the book would be much better, but because he's trying to give us plots along with those strong characters, the book doesn't quite work. Unless, of course, I'm just too dim to see what else is going on. That's certainly possible.

Still, I like that Bergen sends me his work, because he's an interesting writer and he usually works with rough but talented artists. In addition to this anthology, he's currently running a Kickstarter to turn one of his novels into a comic. Check it out here if you're at all interested!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Animal Kingdom volume 2 by Jacob Mazer (editor). Featuring work by Catherine Averill, Enoki, Beck Levy, Jacob Mazer, Allen Mozek, Caleb Nolen, and Christopher Schaeffer. 88 pages, $12.

I'm even less sure what to make of Animal Kingdom, which Jacob Mazer was nice enough to send my way. In the case of comics like this, I think it's best to explain what's going on, let you know it exists, and get out of the way. Animal Kingdom is pretty weird, y'all, but again, it's clear the people who worked on it are talented, and I don't know why I don't connect with it more.

This is a combination of prose and comics, so we get several short pieces, some prose, some criticism, with some odd comics in between. Catherine Averill contributes three prose pieces, the first about a sad, dazed man who asks people on the street to read him a newspaper clipping. It's an effective piece, as Averill gets to the heart of why the man is standing on the street in his daze in a very few sentences, and it's quite chilling.

Her second piece, "Partialize," is a bit less effective, but it still tells of a person adrift in a world she doesn't understand, and the writing itself is good. Her final piece is two paragraphs about kissing, and it shows again that Averill is quite good at getting to a somewhat odd point quickly. It doesn't have the emotional heft of the first two pieces, but it's intriguing.

Caleb Nolen's story, "The Meat Between Us," is narrated by a man who is cheating on his wife. He picks her up after one of his trysts, and while they're driving home, he hits a deer on a country road but doesn't kill it. He and his wife have to decide how they're going to put it out of its misery. It's a terrifically written story - Nolen has a talent for building tension to almost unbearable levels - but again, I'm not sure what I'm supposed to get out of it. What does it mean? The wife is more comfortable with death, that's clear, but what does that have to do with being a cheater? The two plot threads don't seem to fit together too well, but maybe I'm just dense. However, I like the story because of the actual writing - it's almost white-knuckle in its intensity as they try to figure out what to do with the deer.

Two other less successful prose pieces show up in the book. "The Room" by Allen Mozek is, I kid you not, about a room. Not that anything happens in the room - Mozek simply describes a room. It starts to get weirdly philosophical at the end, but before that, we get six interminable pages about the dimensions and materials that make up the room. I have absolutely no idea what to make of it. Christopher Schaeffer writes "Transparent Artaud: 11 Notes on Cinema-Blood and the Mangled Bodies of Medievalism," which is nominally about Antonin Artaud but also about insanity and blood and ... well, that's about all I got out of it.

It's the kind of essay that sounds really great, because Schaeffer obviously loves language and knows what he's talking about, but is so esoteric it's difficult to parse what he's really trying to say, at least for a mental midget like myself. I really don't know what he's trying to say, although I do like that he cites Fletcher Hanks and Detective Comics #34, that one with the faceless man Bruce Wayne sees in Paris. Artaud was into surrealism and other fun stuff like that, so a prose piece about him is going to be difficult, to say the least.

The comics in the volume are also interesting and occasionally successful. "Elegy of the Mind" by Enoki is absolutely beautiful, but I have no idea what happens in it. A woman somehow gets body modification done, which angers her lover, but I'm not sure why. What happened? Enoki's delicate line work is stunning, and she lays out the pages wonderfully to create a weird, dream-like story, but I don't know what happens when the story ends.

Mazer's "Liquid City" is the centerpiece of the book. It's the second chapter of a story about a man named Stephen, who ends up teaching at private school where weird stuff is happening. There's a planet orbiting the sun exactly opposite from the Earth, there's a headmistress in a body-encasing suit of armor who gets off by Stephen doing something very weird to her internal organs (or so it appears), there's a precocious student with a really powerful hearing aid, there are hallucinogenic eggs, and there are mask-wearing assassins. It's all very wacky, but Mazer tells the story with such peculiar verve that it keeps everything moving along nicely, and his art is quite fascinating. "Liquid City" is creepy but effective, and it's the most interesting piece of work in the book.

Beck Levy contributes two stories, one two pages long that doesn't make a lick of sense, at least to me, and a longer one in which she describes a road trip with a band she knows.

It's a bit goofy, but somewhat charming. Levy's rough art fits the tone of the story - a DIY aesthetic - pretty well, and she has some good storytelling skills that make up for the less accomplished drawing.

The interesting thing about this volume is that it's drenched in sex. I'm not sure why these creators are so obsessed with sex, but they are, and because it's often weird sex, it makes even the stories that aren't great - "Elegy for the Mind," for instance - a bit more interesting, because the characters are feeling things so intensely that it carries the reader along for a time. If you step back, you start to see problems, but the raw feelings these characters experience help make the stories fascinating, even if I don't love them. As I noted, these are talented people, and I'm not sure why there's a disconnect between me and the work presented in this volume. Again, I blame my dimness. Why not?

I appreciate Mazer sending this to me - it's always fun to read things that are outside my comfort zone, even if I don't always like them all that much. I can appreciate the work the creators put into the book and the skill they have in creating weird little worlds, even if I don't love the work that much. Maybe you will, if you choose to check this out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Omega Comics Presents volume 2 #3. "Eastsiders: Electric" by Pj Perez (writer), António Brandão (artist), and Warren Wucinich (colorist); "Hard Time" by Russell Lissau (writer), Justin CastanedaAlex De-Gruchy (writer), Mike Kennedy (artist), Ken Lamug (colorist), and Amador Cisneros Jr. (letterer). $4.99, 32 pgs, FC, Pop! Goes the Icon.

At last year's Emerald City Comic Con, I picked up the preview of this issue, with a brief "teaser" of the entire thing. Now Pj Perez has finished the chapter, and it shows up in Omega Comics Presents, the best anthology you're probably not buying. Perez and Brandão give us Jake Peters, who lives in London's East End, kind of on the margins.

He's supposed to meet a friend of his at a warehouse, but when he gets there, he finds bodies that appear to have been burned even though there's no evidence of fire (and their clothes are intact. When the cops show up, Jake uses some kind of electric power on them to stun them and escape. Thus begins the mystery!

Perez writes a fairly standard genre story with "Eastsiders," although the presence of a superhuman in the middle of it makes it more interesting. There's the cop who gets the investigation taken away by the government agency that handles oddball cases; there's the gang members who appear to have some kind of powers, too; there are the two mysterious dudes at the end who seem to be interested in finding Jake, probably because they're working for some top-secret group. Everything slots into fairly familiar territory, but it's territory that I tend to enjoy, and Perez is usually pretty good at putting an interesting plot together. The story moves along well, although there are a couple of confusing things. Jake bumps into two dudes headed into a store he's leaving early on in the issue, and I don't think they show up again, so why are they there in the first place? Then, when he goes to the warehouse, he doesn't know if his friend is among the dead, but he doesn't seem to care about finding out. Those two moments are a bit strange, but the rest hums along pretty well, and there's some nice mysterious elements to the story.

Brandão is a pretty utilitarian artist; he gets the job done but isn't particularly flashy. He does a good job with the short action scenes in the story, and he designs everyone in a way that it's easy to distinguish them, which is always a good thing. His best character might be Rebecca Hansen, the cop who catches the case (before the government agent takes it away from her), as Brandão makes her attractive but remembers that she's an overworked police officer, so her hair is pulled back into a tight ponytail and her clothes are stolid and unassuming.

She looks like a haggard cop, even without Brandão making her too unattractive. There's some nice coloring in the issue - Wucinich uses an orange/blue complement, but he doesn't overuse it, and it makes the electricity Jake throws around a bit more eerie.

The issue has a short back-up story and a one-page gag strip, too. "Hard Time" is quite funny - a supervillain named the Devastator goes to jail and doesn't have a very good time. Lissau's story parodies The Shawshank Redemption nicely, and Castaneda's cartoony art keeps the tone light. It's a fun tale. The gag strip is about how to talk to women respectfully, which doesn't go well, naturally, especially when the woman one is talking to is superpowered. It's silly, but mildly amusing.

I always like that Perez sends me his stuff (and I'd like to thank him for this issue), and while "Eastsiders" isn't quite as good as last issue's "San Hannibal," it's still an entertaining genre mash-up. And, as usual, I love that Perez is doing his own comics and pulling in a lot of interesting talent. I imagine he's planning on launching "Eastsiders" as a mini-series, like he did with "San Hannibal," and I'm intrigued by the premise, despite some flaws, to wonder what's going to happen with Jake and his electric powers. Let's hope Perez continues the story soon.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Grand Adventure by Lucy Bellwood. 24 pgs, $10.

In August/September 2013, Lucy Bellwood rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, and as she's a comic creator, she decided to draw a page a day about her adventure and publish it. Here it is!

I've only known about Bellwood for a little over a year, but I'm totally in the bag for her work, so there.

Like a lot of young, usually female cartoonists, she has a buoyant line, with a lot of circular figures and big expressions, and she has a tremendous sense of humor. She's written about herself almost exclusively, which should mean I roll my eyes, but they're not strictly autobiographical comics in the sense of a story about how she grew up and became an adult, they're short episodes about things that happened to her, like rafting down the Colorado. What I'm saying is that Bellwood is awesome, so I don't know how objective I can be about Grand Adventure. But that's the way it is!

First of all, she did the entire comic on the river - she writes that she drew each page the night of the day it depicts and colored it the next day before breakfast, so the art has a slightly rougher, frenetic look to it than her earlier work, True Believer, which is more refined. She uses more exaggerated facial expressions, mostly because she crams a lot onto each page, so this is not the place for subtlety. She captures the joy of being outdoors and having adventures really well, and she does a nice job shifting from the exuberance of the journey to the drudgery of the weather or the anxiety of facing rapids. August/September is monsoon season in Arizona, so it rained often during Bellwood's trip, which is really annoying when you're camping but leads to some very nice panels, like the one with the proliferation of waterfalls. In some places, she gets very detailed, as in the panel where she draws one of the butterflies she sees. She's also good at depicting the rapids as the water leaps up around the raft and threatens to overwhelm them in some places. As nice as her art is, her coloring is more impressive. She does a tremendous job capturing the many hues of reds, oranges, browns, grays, greens, and even blues in the rocks and flora of the canyon.

She doesn't draw a lot of lines in the rock vistas, simply painting in different shades of various colors, so that the rocks look far more "real" and imposing. It's a nicely drawn comic but a beautifully colored one.

Bellwood is an interesting writer, because she's a lot less verbose than you might think from a young writer. She knows that less is more, for instance, and that writers, especially writers who also draw, can trust their art to tell parts of the story. Many young writers feel the need to fill up the pages with words, but Bellwood, while still writing quite a bit (although it looks like more because, as I noted, the cramped layouts), knows the effect of restraint. For the most part, she narrates the events, but she also puts in some very nice quiet philosophical moments. Some of them are obvious - feeling small in the canyon, for instance - but there are also amazing, restrained moments of beauty in her writing. When she experiences silence inside a deep, small canyon, she tells us she's forgotten what silence is, and then we get a wonderful panel of shifting shapes and the words, "I dream complicated dreams." It's a terrific comment on the modern world and how it affects us, all without Bellwood making it too obvious. She does this a lot - she simply recounts things she sees, but she does it so economically that it makes the simple things sound more important. It's a nice trick, and she uses it to end the book on one such note, a simple thing that takes on deeper meaning when we step back and consider both the few words and the artwork on the page. It ends the voyage and, subtly, an important part of Bellwood's life (or at least that's the implication). It's neat.

I really liked Grand Adventure, and I guess the only negative I can say about it is that it's 10 dollars. The girl has to eat, though! Head on over to Bellwood's web site and check out more of her comics. You know you want to!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

So that's all for now. As always, I love getting stuff in the mail, even though I don't always love it. I like it partly because it reminds me that so many people are out there making comics because they love comics, and that's never a bad thing. I hope you guys found something interesting in here!

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