Almost Colossus

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Kramers Ergot 7 is a product of colossal ambition, it is of colossal size and it was published to colossal expectations. Is it any surprise that the result is less than colossal?

There is no doubt that this is a rare achievement in comics production, and it is certainly also a high-quality anthology containing some great comics, but editor Sammy Harkham and the stellar line up of cartoonists invited to contribute have set the bar so high in their previous work that much of what they offer here nevertheless fails to reach the high water mark of contemporary comics that the book could have been.

In addition to many of the artists who contributed to earlier issues of the anthology and helped make Kramers the statement in contemporary comics art it has been, Harkham this time around invited some of the heavy-hitters of past generations: Ivan Brunetti, Dan Clowes, Kim Deitch, Matt Groening, Jaime Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Seth, Adrian Tomine and Chris Ware. In contrast to earlier such “guest appearances”—Ware, for example, seemed conspicuously out of place in KE5—the uniqueness of the present project and the sheer number of very different cartoonists contributing overrides any concerns one might otherwise have had about artistic dissonance. Actually, the book’s sheer eclecticism is a strength in that it adds to the feeling that this could potentially be a kind of Pioneer Plaque—or an Ark, as Tom Gauld would have us imagine with his gorgeous contribution—of early 21st-century comics, one day to bring four-coloured fun to Morlocks.

Harkham exhibits what seems like self-ironic awareness of this with his front cover. It depicts the Fairfax, LA street in which he and his brothers run a book store, Family Books, evidently decorated by Ron Regé. Only, the setting is post-apocalyptic. Nature has reclaimed the streets, shared in harmony between mostly herbivorous animals and nude women. It is night, but a new day is dawning. Water runs from the broken storefront, puddling around a discarded comic book.

It is a kind of tentative utopia, rich in subtext—the face paint worn by the women presumably signifies a new social order, for example—and with a distinct undercurrent of loss. One woman lies with her head down with a melancholy stare in her eyes, unaware that she is resting a goofily cartoonish artifact on her chest, while another uncomprehendingly holds a newspaper comics section upside down. More disturbingly, however, everyone seems oblivious to the mummified (male) corpse slumped across the dashboard of his decaying car, dead in the foreground.

Harkham comments further—and very subtly—upon this dubious return to innocence in his knowingly cute and goofy one-page comic inside the book, in which two Men In Black chase a girl and her horse across a desert marked by “million year old rocks” and a view across the ocean to “break a man’s heart”. Almost demonstratively trifling on its own, the strip takes on a both ominous and slightly melancholy significance when seen in relation to the cover’s augury.

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One only wishes a similar amount of thought and creative care had gone into more of the contributions. The panoramic setup places the onus more unequivocally on each individual work to stand on its own merits than it would in a more thematically or aesthetically determined anthology, and it is immediately evident that much of the material does not pass muster. Not that there is a lot of outright bad work here, merely way too much that is of too little consequence—instances of creators not rising to the task and delivering below their usual standard. This is not helped by the fact that so many of them have contributed better work to previous issues of Kramers.

Dan Zettwoch is represented by a striking double spread, attractively painted in gouache, vividly evoking his typical St. Louis milieu and full of his usual explicatory concerns, but it is ultimately less sophisticated than his strips in the two previous issues, and strangely without a point; Helge Reumann delivers two perfectly adequate pages, but they come off mostly as a repeat of his contribution to KE5; Shary Boyle’s story is nice-looking, but far from as powerful as her illustrations in KE6 (her back cover, showing a naked man and woman plunging hand in hand into a fiery abyss is strong work, however). Blanquet does a page of Blanquet, no more no less. Jerry Moriarty’s single pagers are interesting and well-conceived, but pale in comparison with his masterful sequence in KE6. CF’s two-pager is attractive but seems to be a repeat run of other, better strips. Souther Salazar’s man-mountain fairy tale is pretty and nicely poetic, but leans a little too heavily on the cute to measure up to his usual standards, not to mention his stunning work in KE4.

Several cartoonists deliver more solidly, but offer few surprises. Kim Deitch’s yarn about the perils of bottle-cap collecting—a generously visual condensation of his recent piece in Deitch’s Pictorama—is pretty much vintage Deitch, with a delirious sense of adventure. John Hankiewicz delivers one of his strongly formalistic, almost rebarbatively cerebral, but also remarkably disciplined sequences, contrasting an off-panel creative writing teacher’s monologue with the performative play enacted for the reader by two students. Seth’s tribute and biographical sketch to Canadian artist and (aptly) book designer Thoreau MacDonald is impeccably crafted but seems made for a different smaller venue—it would have been nice to seem him work on a larger scale—and carries few surprises for those familiar with his work and aesthetic.

Others contribute inspired pieces that seem less than entirely successful. Anders Nilsen draws one of his lushest strips to date—a joy to look at, but uncharacteristically light in the ideas department. The prettiness seems overwrought. David Heathley admirably attempts an ambitious allegorical dissection of one of his favourite themes: race-relations in America, but I am not sure it ultimately coheres, or ultimately offers any great insights on the issue. Matt Groening’s is a delightfully cynical and very funny, Life in Hellish take on an old, diagrammatic illustration of “the Road to Success”, although the brilliance of the original idea perhaps overshadows the interpretation.

Chris Ware (unsurprisingly) offers the single best conceptual idea of the whole book with an instalment of his ongoing “Building Stories” in drawing a sleeping child, life-size, down the middle of his spread and spinning a mosaic of his protagonist’s childhood recollections around it. It is a fascinating departure for him into slightly sentimental subject matter, and is as always well executed, but is uncharacteristically lax, lacking both the clockwork precision and sharp delineation of character of the previously published episode of the series in ACME Novelty Library #18. Plus, his cartoon style does not lend itself well to close ups—the child looks like a plastic doll.

Whatever their shortcomings, however, you cannot blame the above-mentioned contributions for not making use of the format they were given (well, apart from Seth). Really, what their efforts collectively may demonstrate more than anything else is the difficulty of creating a great comic strip in only one or two pages, even if those pages are enormous, or perhaps especially if they are enormous (although several of them have done so in the past, some repeatedly). That expectations were so high surely only compounded this problem.

More problematic, however, are the many pages substandard work: Dan Clowes turns in a trite genre exercise, thankfully leavened by his trademark humour, but lacking almost entirely in the emotional power and insight into human behaviour that makes him one of the greats. Anna Sommer, who used to be such a gutsy cartoonist, delivers a fable more concerned with surface design qualities than efforts to convey anything of import. Rather than giving us one of his amazingly coloured and often funny stoner strips, Joe Daly treats us to small, hard-to-read monochrome panels in his tiresome pantomime ‘psychedelic’ mode. Jacob Ciocci shows us that he is considerably less skilled at the old trick of fashioning a large face out of a full sequential page than, say, Neal Adams. Adrian Tomine demonstrates that he should probably avoid drawing fistfights in the future. Ben Jones and Pshaw contribute a page of strips that looks like somebody ripping them off. And Mat Brinkman really needs to chill on the fantasy illustrations and start drawing comics again.

I could go on. There are several contributions that seem even less necessary than the ones mentioned above. Part of the problem is editorial. I understand that a fair number of pages were actually rejected or sent back to the contributors for changes, and—having myself edited a couple of (much less complex and spectacular) anthologies—I am impressed with the Herculean effort it has surely taken even to make this book a reality. But as a reader all I can judge is the final result, and it seems to me that it could have benefited from the more exacting editorial standards Harkham so successfully applied to earlier issues of Kramers.

It seems, for example, like a missed opportunity to recycle two old Metropolis strips from Katchor—even if they are excellent—instead of getting him to contribute something new. But more to the point: why include somebody like Rick Altergott at all, if all he is going to do is throw together five smaller, and very average, Doofus strips on a page? And Johnny Ryan parodying David Heathley’s notorious “My Sexual History” from KE5 is a fun idea and all, but it would have been much more interesting to see him work to the format, doing something monumentally asinine, rather than this kind of trifle much better suited to the small format in which his travesties normally appear. Pushing such contributors to do better, more ambitious work—or out of the anthology—could potentially have improved matters significantly.

Considering that so many of the contributions do comparatively little with the format, it is also disappointing that the focus is so overwhelmingly on traditionally conceived comic strips. Of course, the original impetus for going large was to offer contemporary cartoonists the Sunday page canvas that had been available to their colleagues in the golden age of the newspaper strip in the early 20th Century, but as Kramers has previously shown us, comics these days are precisely in the kind of flux that calls for an expanded field of expression involving techniques and approaches more conventionally associated with other artistic media. If preference towards traditional comics narrative was an editorial preference here, it seems to have been a flawed one.

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Thankfully, there is also some inspirational—at times even great—work in the book. Ruppert and Mulot deliver a scrambled parable set on a monumental staircase, with people dragging mundane objects up, and falling down. Tim Hensley’s gag strip is a suffocating portrait of personal dissolution and corporate surveillance and punishment, employing the most trivial cartoon language to speak in disturbing tongues. Kevin Huizenga provides a simple, soothing pullout from the personal to the universal. Hernandez contributes a deceptively stark, subtly moving study of memory and human lack of empathy. Frank Santoro makes full use of the format to draw a topical yet universal depiction of what happens between the panels in the War on Terror. Will Sweeney gets retarded on some astonishing P-Funk shit. Josh Simmons’ horror story offers not only frightening moments, but evokes a more subtle existential terror both through its characterisation and its bleak setting. And Xavier Robel’s explosion of imbedded narratives, overlapping into graphic disharmony, offers a compelling expansion to Gary Panter’s innovations in noise comics.

One might have hoped for more work of this calibre in such an ambitious anthology: work that makes use of the format to suggest new directions in comics—career highlights, breakthrough stuff. I see very little of this. It is perhaps a little unreasonable to expect so much of such a complex project with so many moving parts, but Harkham did it with Kramers Ergot 4—a landmark work that he even managed to follow up with two high-quality sequels. He and the many contributors created not only what is arguably the most significant comics anthology since Raw, but delivered a full-blown aesthetic statement, a vision of what comics could be.

This is perhaps, really, the story of the book’s cover. This statement is by nature utopian—an idealistic endeavour hoping to return comics to a kind of innocence, opening the field of production towards wondrous new creation. A loving gesture that “spreads out to envelop the whole World” as Ron Regé formulates the promise in his post-apocalyptic strip towards the end of the present book, where a wrecked car radio—which might as well come from the steel carcass depicted by Harkham—suddenly sputters to life and emits a pure sound. One almost wishes that this poignant strip had been selected to end the book, instead of the somewhat heavy-handed and thoroughly bleak one-page Woyzeck adaptation by Conrad Botes, but herein lies perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of the conditions under which we all work.

While not the great compendium of comics it could—and perhaps should—have been, Kramers Ergot 7 nevertheless provides a boldly flawed, hubristic monument to the dreams of a generation of great cartoonists.

Sammy Harkham, with Alvin Buenaventura (eds.) Kramers Ergot 7. Oakland, CA: Buenaventura Press, 2008. Check out this interview with editor Sammy Harkham and this profile of some of the contributors, and for those who find the ShoboShobo-designed table of contents in the book confusing, Dick Hyacinth’s provided us with an easier-to-access one. Also, do check out this photo/sound reportage from Bill Karalopoulos. Last but not least, you might want to check out my review of the seminal Kramers 4, from back when it came out.

2 Responses to “Almost Colossus”


  • Though I disagree with one or two of the specific judgements, this is the first review of KE7 I’ve seen that reflects my own reaction to the work – too many inconsequential strips and retreads of earlier work made me feel a little disappointed, though I still find myself returning to it from time to time. The claustraphobic Josh Simmons strip was the standout for me; the David Heatley strip, the cringe-inducing worst (futher evidence that the man should learn to avoid political philosophizing in his strips).

  • Thanks for the kind words. I agree that Josh Simmons was one of the standouts. I was only vaguely aware of him before and his contribution was really strong. And I think it’s impressive how he really manages to tell a *story.*

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