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Sk8 Dad Summer by Brett Hamil

Sk8 Dad Summer by Brett Hamil

It’s rare that I pick up a comic so precisely aimed at my own personal situation. As a dad recently returned to skateboarding myself I felt obliged to check out Brett Hamil’s Sk8 Dad Summer. But I was nervous. Other parents often horrify me. What if I dislike this Sk8 Dad person? And what if that hits a bit too close to home and opens up a fresh vein of self-loathing?

I’m happy to report that my fears were unwarranted. This ~60-page volume published by Birdcage Bottom Books is a thoughtful, sensitive examination that got me, yes, stoked. The book starts with a middle-aged man deciding to build a backyard skateboard ramp while thinking back upon a beloved ramp of his youth. From there it’s a chronicle of how that decision fits with the complications of adulthood and fatherhood.

Hamil’s drawing is lovely. Pared-down yet vivid. Most of the book’s text is narration and the drawing always enhances the message–no talking heads or rote illustration.

Though highly readable this is no lightweight fare. Hamil left me with lots to chew on, from how childhood experiences become formative, to the importance of life-affirming activities, to the expectations others put upon us and those we put upon our children. Despite the personal relevance of some of the details for me, it’s not a pandering work. There’s a lot here for anyone in this messy, confusing life whether or not they can ollie.

Self-hype: GNARCADIA #1

Self-hype: GNARCADIA #1

OK, maybe I’ve been a bit neglectful of Refreshing Rectangles for the past month or so, but I have reasons! Mainly, I’ve been working on my new comic book series Gnarcadia. The first issue is out now!

The issue introduces a cast of young skateboarders seeking to make sense of the urban detritus in which they dwell. I plan to make many more stories with these kids, so maybe you should meet them.

You’ve got 2 ways to grab the issue:

Road Show by James the Stanton

Road Show by James the Stanton

Stanton’s bouncy, elastic drawing is impossible to resist. It’s immediately recognizable and overloads the senses like a Jolly Rancher Slurpee on a hot day.

The story starts out as the seeming main character drives to join a cross-country road race, but a suspicious roadblock immediately thwarts this premise. The race and that character fall by the wayside as a series of increasingly outlandish monsters commandeer the narrative. It’s a freewheeling issue that escalates all the way.

Stanton’s hypnotic, swooping lines are backed by exhilarating color. Everything is bright but with a watercolor softness that accentuates the blobby forms.

In reviews I don’t like to say that an artist reminds me of another artist, but as I was reading Road Show the drawings gave me a tingle similar to what I get off Sergio Aragonés. Their styles are completely distinct from each other but they both work the same clump of my cartoon-processing brain cells. I wouldn’t have mentioned it except the feeling was rewarded a few pages later by this bit of chicken fat:

The issue ends without resolution but with a tantalizing panel promising further escalation. I’m braced for Stanton’s next kick to the retina.

Field trip: the Silver Sprocket store in San Francisco

Field trip: the Silver Sprocket store in San Francisco

I was fortunate enough to visit Paris several years ago. Most attractive to me of all of that city’s cultural sites were the comic shops. It was mind-boggling to be surrounded by attractive displays of beautiful books by artists mostly unfamiliar to me, and not a cape in sight. I got the same feeling in the Silver Sprocket store located in San Francisco’s Mission District (1018 Valencia St).

Display of books published by Silver Sprocket

Silver Sprocket is a publisher but their online and physical stores carry books from a wide variety of independent and small press publishers. What’s most striking about the store to me is how much they fit in there. I’m used to stores having a section or a rack devoted to interesting independent work. The Silver Sprocket store is not small, it has a lot of shelves, and it’s all the good stuff.

I love a lot of book shops but I’ve never been in one this comprehensive when it comes to what’s interesting in American comics. They carry bigger independents like Fantagraphics but what’s more impressive is the amount of inventory from publishers like Perfectly Acceptable, Peow, Glom, Kilgore, Strangers, Shortbox, etc plus tons of self-published work. If you’ve been missing small press shows during the pandemic a visit to Silver Sprocket will be dangerous for your wallet.

Everything about the shop is designed to be browse-friendly. Given the chance, one of these books will catch your eye and go home with you, so the layout is all about maximizing that chance. Lots of tiered, forward-facing displays.

There are shelves for specific publishers, all ages books, LGBTQ, and other groupings. Shoppers are encouraged to sit and read.

Sit and read a while.

Another striking feature of French comics shops mirrored by Silver Sprocket is walls covered with art. It’s a gallery above all the books, all for sale, plus bins of additional prints to peruse.

If you like the kind of comics I talk about here and you’re in the Bay Area then the Silver Sprocket store is a must-visit. And if you’re unfortunately located elsewhere, their online shop is pretty good too.

Trench Coat by Jake Machen

Trench Coat by Jake Machen

“Jack Harlem would rather take his chances as a human than become a machine. But this is Zap City and sooner or later everybody has to plug in.” That blurb quote from the back cover of Trench Coat is a tidy demonstration of what the book is going for. It’s hard-boiled sci-fi. Jack Harlem is the last un-augmented detective in a city rife with cybernetic enhancement. He’s got a case to solve that could pay for his daughter’s mounting medical bills. Of course, it all goes to hell immediately.

This 48-page comic immediately swept me into its world. Texture and detail bring the Zap City spreads alive. The character designs are fun. Dialogue is snappy. The premise is laden with genre convention but Jake Machen deploys it with enough awareness, playfulness and style to produce a work that’s fresh.

I enjoyed Machen’s cartooning throughout. Even in dialogue-heavy sequences, the characters never just recite their lines. There’s always an informative bit of acting to enhance the scene. The grid of panels is often punctuated by sequences of smaller panels to focus on one small part of the action. In lesser hands this could distract from or jumble the narrative flow but when done this well the reader’s eyes move through the page to the rhythm the story demands. That’s some comics magic.

Trench Coat is labeled as Volume 1 and as the story ends it seems like the author intended to produce more of it. I don’t know if that’s still the case but it was a satisfying read regardless. Whatever Jake Machen publishes next, I’ll be seeking it out.

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!

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.