No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

No One Else by R. Kikuo Johnson

No One Else was one of my top books of 2021. It’s short–under a hundred uncluttered pages–yet through his mastery of the medium R. Kikuo Johnson fills it with a powerful density of human experience.

It’s the story of a family in the aftermath of an elderly father’s death. His adult daughter, Charlene, is suddenly released from the burden of elder care she’d shouldered alone for so long. Her happy-go-lucky brother, Robbie, returns to town soon after and struggles with how to process the death of a father who’d only ever given him disapproval. Charlene has no time for Robbie’s introspection, resentful that she was the one holding things together for so long and determined to get on with her life. And Charlene’s young son, Brandon, is in the middle of it all, navigating the concerns of childhood amid the instability of the adults around him.

Johnson renders this family dynamic in immaculate detail, leveraging the full power of comics. It’s all shown, not told. Every gesture is unmistakable. The story flows effortlessly between significant vignettes. Short panel sequences give intimate views into each character’s anguish.

Cartoonists who eschew background detail should have a look at this one. The backgrounds aren’t overloaded, but Johnson uses them to maximum effect. The meals that characters prepare throughout the story are never a focus but they say so much about the state of affairs in this house. The story takes place on Maui, where Johnson grew up, and the landscapes, structures, and people are unmistakably Hawaiian. The authenticity of setting bolsters the story’s impact.

All of this cartooning virtuosity makes for a gripping read. I became invested in the characters quickly and then concerned for their welfare. They’re all sympathetic and flawed and muddling through a tough situation however they can. With No One Else R. Kikuo Johnson delivers a vivid portrayal of a family, like so many of our families, striving to reach the other side of trauma.

Freshening up for 2022

Freshening up for 2022

Hello obscure comics blog buddies! Here’s a brief update about the goings on here:

Back at it: I had a busy past few months with some freelance work and holiday complications but things have calmed so I’m eager to get back to posting about those comics we all love so much.

Publication calendar uncertainty principle: As part of Refreshing Rectangles I’ve been maintaining a calendar of release dates for publications of interest. It can be a pretty handy resource. However, in these times of wayward supply chains the actual dates of release for many of these publications are speculative. I’m doing my best to adjust when I see delays but beware that books may not be on the shelves exactly when expected. I see the calendar as a guide to cool books that are coming or have come (you can scroll back in the calendar to see releases you may have missed) with links to the publishers. It is still useful in that way if not as a perfectly accurate calendar. And if you have some intel about something missing from the calendar, drop a line to jff.comics@gmail.com!

My own minicomics: As I’ve mentioned on here before I was publishing a minicomic of my own every month in 2021. Twelve months, twelve minicomics. I posted some year-end thoughts about that project over on my Patreon blog (free for all to read, no support required). I talk creative process, success and failure, and how I plan to proceed. If that sounds interesting to you, click on over.

Grixly #53 and #54 by Nate McDonough

Grixly #53 and #54 by Nate McDonough

It is to my painful discredit that I did not discover Nate McDonough’s long-running series Grixly until recently. Fifty-four issues!?! And every comic within a wholly worthwhile and satisfying read?!?!? It’s a one-man anthology of short strips with a lot of autobiography but a playful assortment of other stuff in the mix. These two latest issues were either released simultaneously or close to it.

Issue #53 is devoted to McDonough’s Longboxes series in which he details his career as a dude who scours local sales for comic books he can flip on eBay. These stories are essential for anyone who has a similar love/hate relationship with grubbing through water-damaged cartons of old newsprint. McDonough lovingly portrays the eccentric, often obnoxious, characters and situations he encounters on the hunt. The secondary-market of comic book hustlers is full of clueless assholes who McDonough shows in all their ugliness but with an edge of empathy for people just trying to get by in a world gone wrong. These stories go deep: the joys of finding lost treasure, ethical conundrums in a cutthroat marketplace, alternating affection and distaste for the raw stuff of this economy. It’s all there. Episodes of Longboxes appear in previous issues of Grixly and are ongoing.

Issue #54 is the non-Longboxes counterpart with a mix of autobio, wordless observation, and miscellaneous drawing. There are pieces about art classes, depressing strip club ads, doing karaoke to songs by the band Live — it’s all over the place and it’s all compelling. McDonough expresses cynical viewpoints throughout that recall the “fallen world” indie comics of the 90s and early 00s, but he also has a level of self-awareness that many of those comics never attained.

The writing is sharp and purposeful. Nothing in these comics feels like a guy grinding out the next issue just to keep those issue numbers rising.

Montana Diary by Whit Taylor

Montana Diary by Whit Taylor

With Montana Diary cartoonist Whit Taylor uses an overtly modest approach to deliver a complex, subtle experience. As plainly stated by the comic’s title, it is a chronicle of Taylor’s vacation to Montana. And sure, it functions as an informative travelogue on one level, but more potent is the earnest presentation of the author’s response to the place.

To call the artwork simple or stripped-down does it a disservice. Unpretentious, maybe? Elegant? I point it out because of how effectively it magnifies this comic’s impact. There’s nothing extra to get in the way of where the artist wants your attention. Every subtle gesture does work.

There’s a good deal of sadness in Taylor’s Montana trip. She visits a glacier melting away due to global warming. Reminders of America’s crimes against native tribes are everywhere in the West. And she feels defensive as a Black woman travelling in one of the whitest states that voted overwhelmingly for a racist demagogue. She processes these serious topics yet still appreciates it when there is beauty around her and finds humor all along the way. It’s a refreshingly true depiction of tourism, where the destination is not separate from the real world and the tourist confides in us her mixed emotions. I’d read one of these for every state.

Hey kids! Hyperlinks!

Hey kids! Hyperlinks!

Jason Shiga

I don’t know how often I’ll do this, but here’s some worthwhile comics news/interviews I’ve recently ingested:

  • NEW SHIGA: Official mad genius Jason Shiga (Fleep, Meanwhile, Demon) sprung a three-book announcement on us unsuspecting unworthies. Interactive graphic novel series called Adventuregame Comics?!?
  • INDIES ON BOARD AT LUNAR DISTRIBUTION: On the small press distro beat, The Comics Journal‘s RJ Casey talks to folks behind some of my favorite publishers (Jason Leivian of Floating World, Tom Kaczynski of Uncivilized, and Avi Ehrlich of Silver Sprocket) plus Christina Merkler of upstart distributor Lunar about their new, mutually-beneficial arrangement.
  • FLOATING WORLD X POWER COMICS: The aficionados of trash/treasure black-n-white indies Power Comics are teaming up with Floating World to curate a new line of reissues of old gems. First up: a collection of Steve McArdle’s Vendetta: Holy Vindicator.
  • AUSTIN ENGLISH INTERVIEW: Ryan C. of Four Color Apocalypse does a beautiful job talking to cartoonist and Domino Books owner Austin English about his upcoming book, the expansion of Domino into wholesale, and how to get more non-shitty comics into the hands of receptive readers.

Do you want this sort of link-blogging? Am I just regurging old news at you? Operators are standing by.

Demons: To Earth and Back by Hyena Hell

Demons: To Earth and Back by Hyena Hell

Following up on last year’s No Romance in Hell comes this new story of the demon Bug who once again must venture forth from her native skullscape to secure some affection. In the first comic Bug goes to Earth looking for love after being rebuffed by fellow pit-dweller Grog. In this new chapter Grog is summoned to Earth by suburban occultists and Bug must ascend once more to rescue him. And if he shows her some appreciation in return, well, that’d be nice too.

The premise is straightforward and massively endearing, a delicate mix of subversive and heartwarming. Every scene delivers relatable emotional conflict with charisma, humor, and, when appropriate, the melting of flesh. Hyena Hell’s comedic chops are elite.

Hell’s drawing knocks me out too. There’s a life and weight to it all that pulls me right in. And overall it seems like the work of a supremely confident cartoonist who knows when to push a character’s expression, when to lay in detail, when to hold back, where to place everything in a complicated scene, how best to deploy texture … a bunch of nuts and bolts that many cartoonists strive for but fewer get right.

I see from Hell’s Instagram that more adventures of Bug are in the works. I’ll read as much as she draws.

Alberto Breccia’s Dracula

Alberto Breccia’s Dracula

This is the fourth volume in the Fantagraphics reprint project of the Alberto Breccia Library but, to my discredit, it’s my first encounter with the Argentine master’s work. The book has overwhelming aesthetic gravity that pulled this ignorant comics shopper into its orbit.

This volume reprints stories from the early 1980s. They’re almost entirely wordless shorts featuring a hapless Dracula. The artwork is all lush, layered paint, with every form distorted for maximal effect, every page a clinic in beautiful ugliness. The rendering alone is worth the price of admission.

On the most superficial level these are gag stories (what happens when a vampire gets a toothache etc) but there are sinister overtones and social criticism throughout. The most overt story “I Was Legend” shows Dracula wandering through scenes of regime brutality until he flees in desperation to the ironic sanctity of a church. Via footnotes and accompanying text this volume points out symbols relevant to the context of the Argentine dictatorship.

Also included in this volume is a fascinating and extensive sketchbook section displaying thumbnails alongside finished pages.

As a Breccia novice I can’t comment on where this fits into the oeuvre but for me it was a tantalizing introduction to that artist’s stature. I’ll be tracking down the rest of this reprint library, including the forthcoming Life of Che.

The Fang by Marc Palm

The Fang by Marc Palm

Everything about Marc Palm’s The Fang is fun. From the alluring pocket pulp cover designs to the double entendre laden dialogue to the mythical beings in relatable predicaments, these were a blast to read and then re-read.

The titular character is a vampire and a contract monster hunter with a face like Sesame Street’s Count. Fang just wants to do her job and have fun but, you know, complications arise. In the first book she goes on a date with a hapless wolf-man who she’s been hired to kill, but their mutual attraction makes her hesitate. In the second book Fang’s livelihood is threatened when Medusa manipulates her into some unauthorized head-chopping. In between jobs she consults with a couple old witch friends, the Hash Hags, who offer advice and bong rips.

Marc Palm’s drawing is lush and lively. So many of the pages here feel like he’s hell-bent on giving you your money’s worth, on getting your jaded comics-skimming eyes to linger. A real treat to behold.

In two short stories Palm established charming characters and situations gushing with potential. Volume 2 ending on “End?” has me salivating for more.

Feral by JF

Feral by JF

Here’s me with the self-promo again. Feral is my ninth consecutive monthly minicomic, a wordless story about a rough morning in the wilderness.

As previously mentioned, I’m publishing a standalone, black-and-white, 12-page minicomic every month this year (and for however long beyond that).