Comics of the Decade: Sammy Harkham et. al., Kramers Ergot 4

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This is part of a Metabunker series celebrating a great decade in comics with Rackham by reprinting select reviews of the decades’ best comics from the Rackham archive, along with a number of new pieces.

Kramers Ergot #4, edited by the cartoonist Sammy Harkham, is an artistic and stylistic statement of a kind rarely seen in comics. Expansive of format, impressive in its editorial consistency and lavish in production, it presents a selection which forces one to consider — and perhaps revise — one’s formal and aesthetic conception of comics.

In recent years, North America has seen the emergence of a benevolent laissez-faire attitude to creating comics, originating primarily in the continent’s extraordinarily lively minicomics scene. Decades after other visual arts, comics are finally mounting a concerted challenge to the reigning, self-imposed dogma of craft as an end in itself, with many young cartoonists prioritising instead a kind of ‘pure’, personal expression.

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Grillo

In contrast to similar efforts of the last thirty years, this new generation (yes, this is a phenomenon manifesting widely enough for that term to apply) is neither angry, nor particularly subversive, as was so emphatically the case with the undergrounds of the 60s and 70s, nor as occupied with realism and verisimilitude as the punk aesthetes and autobiographers of the 80s and 90s. If we can talk about iconoclasm here, it’s mainly in the rejection of comics’ traditional craft-based aesthetic, while the portrayal of personal reality is largely divorced from concerns with realism and existential gravity, and instead focused inward, often with a tinge of irony.

Similarly to grunge rock in the 90s and parts of alternative hip hop today, it has now become hip in comics to be a sensitive, creative, somewhat (but only somewhat) slack suburbian kid, who — in spite of the ills of the world and general lack of skill — leaves his or her imprint upon the world in the form of small, earnest creations of great alleged beauty.

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Cole

With James Kochalka and his provocative manifesto of a few years ago — “Craft is the Enemy!” — as an ideological and aesthetic referent, we are now seeing a widening field of alternative comics telling small, often absurd and ultimately fairly safe stories that often postulate lyrical depth and self-consciously brandish their harmlessness, friendliness and, yes, cuteness. Cute is the hot new way of self-fashioning; Brut is the (over)confident attitude to craft as hindrance — CuteBrut is the new style for the new generation!

As indicated, this trend has primarily manifested itself in minicomics and as art objects, most notably and convincingly those coming out of the remarkable cartooning milieu of St. Louis and the Providence-based Fort Thunder collective, but it is being consolidated in anthologies like NON, The Ganzfeld and, of course, Kramers Ergot (as well as Blab!, but there it’s primarily the older generation that lets it all hang out), not to mention the publications of several small press publishers, led by Highwater Books.

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Jones

The phenomenon is primarily American and is intimately tied to American suburbian experience, built as it is on demographic homogenisation and isolation. But it has also arrived in Europe — the number of small, photocopied, primitive and largely risk-free publications is on the rise, not the least in the French-speaking countries, but also in Scandinavia.

This is an essentially charitable tendency, in that producing work is no longer as intimidating for young artists, who therefore let loose with all the stick figures, plot holes, earnest lyricism and small-time pathos they’ve got in them. There’s something inherently healthy about expressing oneself unhindered. That being said, however, there’s also something disheartening about this rejection of craft, and especially the often concomitant tendency to tone down the general level of ambition. And it is hardly encouraging to see so many people thus contradictorily following what is clearly a trend in the name of personal expression.

To be sure, it has brought about significant work, but only few of these young creators possess the whimsical humour and exacting way with words of Tom Hart, the powerful graphics and emotional punch of Ron Regé, or the existential presence of John Porcellino. CuteBrut is, frankly, a rather troubling development — an convenient excuse for producing inferior work.

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Grillo

But back to the matter at hand: the reason Kramers Ergot #4 makes such an impression is that it takes this aesthetic further than previously seen in any one place. It shows a partiality toward lyrical or associative pictorial sequences, rather than the story- or plot-driven approach usually seen in comics. Some would surely argue that a fair amount of the included material isn’t comics at all, and it might not be, but ultimately that’s a fruitless and impossible discussion that fails to address the work—and this really is an editorial ‘work’ — on the premises it deserves.

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C.F.

Kramers Ergot #4 is minicomics aesthetics and CuteBrut taken to the next level: wrapped in thick covers and lavishly printed in colour on quality stock, it presents plenty of inept drawing, often willed in its childishness (e.g. Ben Jones, “C.F.” and Allison Cole), teensy-cute pop-cultural sequences of collage (Joe Grillo, Billy & Laura Grant), exercises in the juvenile juxtaposition of funny animals and predictably moronic captions such as “grow marijuana” (Joe Grillo again), and so on. When subjected to closer scrutiny, much of this material comes across as incompetence disguised as primitivist (but “real”) Art. It’s rather embarrassing, to be honest.

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Nilsen

Having said that, however, and with my reservations against the discontents of this “new style” out of the way, it needs to be emphasised that the anthology contains a lot of quality material too, including a couple of really excellent pieces. The greatly talented Anders Nilsen bookends the selection with an episodic two-parter that manages subtly to move despite its barebones presentation — his insecure but attentive rendering has real nerve. The opening depicts Sisyphos taking a break from his work to talk to an inquisitive goose that happens to pass by and doesn’t understand what he is doing. The closing piece also takes place on Sisyphos’ mountain, although he himself spends most of the time off-panel. The goose tries to console the doleful Minotaur who has been let down by the inconsiderate Ariadne. It might not sound like much, but Nilsen’s work — here, as in his comic book series Big Questions — manages to present it in a way that is simultaneously naïve and strangely poetic, growing in the reader’s imagination.

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Brown

Jeffrey Brown, who has recently published the book-length autobiographical comics Clumsy and Unlikely, stitches a patchwork of lived encounters with beggars and homeless people, palpably evoking the indifference, disgust and, ultimately, the guilt that Brown — and we, who recognise the situations and sentiments — feels in the encounter with these ubiquitous, yet only half-present people. To call Brown’s linework ‘rough’ is to put it charitably, but it works fine in context.

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Harkham

Head honcho Harkham delivers the longest contribution, “Poor Sailor”; a wordless and tragic out-and-home-again story about a man who leaves his small cabin and beloved wife to try his luck on the high seas, only to return broken and empty-handed. While the plot itself is fairly formulaic, the execution is powerful — Harkham’s linework carries a poetry similar to that of Nilsen’s, but is harsher, more uncomfortable in quality. The similarly composed, wide open, square panels evoke strongly the feelings of longing and emptiness that underpin the story.

Providing spectacular contrast is Souther Salazar. His contribution consists of a number of self-contained 1- and 2-page suites of illustrations, as well as two longer, open and free-flowing text- and image sequences. Like so many of the other contributors, his drawing is fairly loose, and might appear to lack confidence, but it shows a sensitive temperament, attentive to the ornamental possibilities of rough hatching combined with quick doodling, and to engage the eye through scribbling and scratching. His work carries a lot of the problems of the CuteBrut aesthetic, but is sufficiently inventive and possessed of a clear eye both for composition and colour, raising his work beyond them. And most importantly: he manages credibly to evoke the earnest feeling many of the others merely postulate.

One of the longer sequences, which carries the almost unbearably pretentious title “Sois mon éternel roulement de batterie” (‘Be My Eternal Drumroll’), is an ode to letting your thoughts flow freely, invoked by the French text and the associative narration. More precisely, it is a love poem, seeking to describe the feeling of dozily waking up in the morning next to one’s beloved. It teeters on the edge of the maudlin, but is nourished by a remarkable integrity of form and what seems like real honesty of mind.

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Salazar

These qualities are even more convincingly realised in Salazar’s other longer piece, “Please, Don’t Give Up” — a handmade book shown in photographs, which contains drawing in pen, pastels and gouache, as well as cut-up found images and bits of text. The result is an extraordinary lyrical sequence, which takes the reader on a rousing, vivacious trip through an imaginary space accompanied by a number of cat-like figures; a trip that serves to remind us — not the least by repeating the title selectively and rhythmically again and again — of how wondrous life can be, if one opens one’s eyes and ears to it. Definitely among the strongest contributions to the anthology, and a unique reading experience in its own right.

Harkham’s selection is rounded off by a handful of shorter, solid pieces by more high-profile cartoonists such as Renée French, Ron Regé and Tobias Schalken, who all deliver the goods, as well as a longer story narrating the travails of a couple of blues musicians down south by Frank Young and David Lasky, who may derive their style from Frank King and Harold Gray, but owe a more direct debt to R. Crumb’s treatments of similar material.

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Young and Lasky

Summing up, Kramers Ergot #4 is an editorial tour de force, which takes a lot of chances and fails on a number of levels, but at the same time packs in more significant work that one would expect for such a risky endeavour — at one and the same time problematic, annoying and trendy, but also an eye-opening and at times original and genuinely inciting art book.

Kramers Ergot as a series, and the latest issue in particular, can be seen as a catalogue of the emerging American avant-garde. For better or worse. This, for my money, is one of the books that we will be pulling off the shelf 10-20 years from now, when we want to characterise and understand art comics of the early years of the 21st century. Kramers Ergot #4 is gloriously a product of its time — a compendium of styles, an inarticulate manifesto, a declaration of independence; Kramers Ergot is where it’s at!

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Salazar

Published in 2003 on the Rackham website. Other installments in this series: David B.’s L’Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic), Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Daniel Clowes’ Ice Haven and The Death Ray, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan — The Smartest Kid on Earth, Dominique Goblet’s Faire semblant c’est mentir, Chester Brown’s Louis Riel, Gary Panter’s Jimbo in Purgatory. Read also our review of Kramers Ergot 7 (2009), this essay on ‘mutant pop’, and our interview with Anders Nilsen. Top image by Mat Brinkman. Oh, and check this!

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