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Awesome 2: Awesomer
(The second of the Indie Spinner Rack anthologies)Posted 30 Aug 2009 Editors: Charlito and Mr. Phil
Publisher: Top Shelf
Reviewed by Adam McGovern
Awesome 2: Awesomer is so much fun and such a bargain that you’ll forget you’re helping the industry and realizing someone’s educational dreams. For less than 15 bucks (with a free minicomic!) you get over 200 pages and some 70 pioneering creators, all convincing you how much you want the Indie Spinner Rack podcast, whose hosts edited the tome, to continue covering and advancing the artform, and how important it is for the part of that $14.95 that doesn’t fund ISR to put a promising artist through the Center for Cartoon Studies (whose students did the endearing and imaginative minicomic).
The collection hits its stride (or strut) 20 pages in with another shab-tacular installment of Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca’s Afrodisiac, in which the separate ’70s worlds of blaxploitation film, trend-hopping mainstream comics and tragically-topical undergrounds come a little closer to colliding than they did in real life.
John Bergin’s “Ticket to Ride” tours death as a lofty, lonely highrise (a neat twist on the ascension imagery of every age and culture, from Jacob’s Ladder and the Norse “world tree” onward and backward). Bergin pitches the sinister and sublime shades of the setting and its fading spirits perfectly, and his gauzy, smudged-charcoal style is a pinnacle of atmospheric subtlety amid the wash of mere post-Templesmith murk that prevails in many other parts of the indie-stry. Shifting the mood expertly, Jon Adams & Rob Walton’s “Party-Poohper” is an uproarious intellectual-property farce told with a tight ensemble of off-duty cartoon icons in a handful of deft Kurtzman-esque strokes (or stabs).
One of this volume’s clearest Eisner contenders is Jesse Post & Fred Chao’s “The Greater Escape,” an elegant parable of existential acceptance and resistance set in a WWII prison camp within a mountaintop castle. The editors’ sense of pacing and variety is sharp, following this delicate reflection with Jon Adams (again) & Robert Goodin’s “Goodbye and Goodbye,” a gruesome burlesque on American healthcare that’s just in time to be required reading for all Town Hall hosts and participants.
J. Chris Campbell’s hilarious tyrannical-robot fairytale “Yes I Can” is like a sardonic Schoolhouse Rock for the way the political system really works. “Fight!!” by Alex Robinson shows unsuspectedly rich possibilities for Jim Starlin barbarian homages in the noncommercial comics dimension (though I’m not sure they meant to print Page 69 upside-down, or that it works if they did); while “Widows” has gorgeous grisaille art by Salgood Sam yet a script by Rantz Hoseley which shows that indie hands can produce even a brooding noir psychological thriller where nothing really happens. Between Pat Lewis’ “Secret Service Stupids” and Marcos Perez’s “Bum Prom!” the book goes from brilliantly nasty slapstick to transcendent surrealism, the former self-explanatory from its title, the latter concerning a cartoon dinosaur capering in hoboland (you’ll have to be there).
Grimm fairytales meet Ray Harryhausen in Miss Lasko-Gross’ “Follow That Frenchie!”, a lushly rendered disenchanted-forest story that feels like the work of a much less redemptive Eleanor Davis, and refreshingly so. In the next woods over we wander into “Primal Time,” a solo Jon Adams’ despondently laff-riotous deflation of Maurice Sendak, with an abandoned wild-child learning all the things he’s not free to do and sheltering himself in the wondrous world of fantasy (which is to say, terminal delusion). Playing off Lasko-Gross in different ways, by sharing her rare skill for shaping and illuminating the raw material of indie memoir, is Mariko Tomaki, Pete Friedrich & Lana Pucci’s “Darren,” a great exploration of childhood ambiguities and serendipitous (though subjective) connections between impressions and events.
As usual, ISR’s own Charlito, Charly LaGreca, expands the medium, this time by pushing the envelope of taste and pulling back the veil on contested history with his snarky/creepy/deeply-felt fragment from “The Infancy of Lil’ Yeshua.” The compact storytelling imagination and unrestrained stylistic range and immediacy are stunning. The other half of ISR’s executive branch, “Mr. Phil” Jackson, navigates the tight, dark corners of a troubling subject with masterful emotional economy and narrative restraint in “The Walk,” a psychological vignette of a traumatized man’s inner thoughts and outer hallucinations that balances noirish suspense with lived-in character study superbly.
Some single jokes and metaphors are too flimsy to support the entire structure of a story – Sarah Glidden’s “The Inconvenience” is an inert sitcom short about a guilty hipster being followed around by solidified, seemingly sentient global warming – but when the theme of obliviousness to current events is stirred into a tidal wave of multi-textured absurdism as in Zach Taylor’s “Clown Revolution,” one joke is worth a thousand pages. Several gag cartoonists in Awesomer mistake underachievement for brevity (like, ouch, last time’s scholarship winner Chuck Forsman), but Chris Duffy shows anarchic wit in “Kitty-Man and Mighty Boots,” and the you-call-that-art spoof “Avant Garde” by Federico Reggiani and Angel Mosquito made me fall out of my chair, which is a lighter fate than what its hapless, involuntary protagonist suffers for (someone else’s) art. Meanwhile, Michele Riganese’s one-page talking-rocks-in-love tale “Tolly and June” shows that the skilled minimal visionary can not just take a shortcut to the funniest perspective but sort out the most essential elements of truth and warmth.
Fringe comics admirably defy formula but sometimes unwisely dispense with narrative; a few of the longer selections here intrigue for a while with unusual character dynamics and original ideas but then pull up short with cutesy stock endings (“Closer to Spring” by Hilary Florido & Saicoink) or trail off into non-event (“Boy Scout Troop 142” by Mike Dawson). But Sean Ford, in “We Tell Ourselves,” has a wise, humane eye for the suspended, melancholy moment of a life’s turning-point, and Sabin Calvert’s shortcircuiting of the minotaur myth, “Half Calf,” is formally daring and genuinely heartwarming.
In a collection of this size, it’s inevitable that some amount of material will be merely awesomeish. There’s a quantity of conflicted-adventurer, vampire-girlfriend, zombie-mob stuff, of both the shallowly dramatic and flatly funny-attempting varieties, that the big bad mainstream is actually doing with more depth as well as chops. And there will always be some over-chumminess manifested in throwaway gags from cartoonists who are here mostly to be here. Yet with this anthology’s passion for the artform and its creators’ many gifts, you may be unawed by some, but you’ll be amazed by most.