It was a surprise when Sammy Harkham and Picture Box publisher Dan Nadel announced their plans for Kramers Ergot 8 about a year ago. Some of us had assumed that the monumental Kramers Ergot 7 had been the decadent word in what has been by far the most groundbreaking comics anthology of the new century.
Despite good intentions and hard work, Kramers Ergot 7 was a disappointment, but on the other hand it was a book with everything to lose and little to gain, and at any rate it marked a fitting finale to a great run.
As an aesthetic project, Kramers Ergot has succeeded beyond the wildest expectations, and especially the breakthrough Kramers Ergot 4 remains the high point of helmsman Sammy Harkham’s anthology series.
Kramers Ergot 4 marked nothing less than a paradigm shift. Although quite a few of the individual contributions were less than great, the synthesis it presented was seminal. It inspired many an art comics anthology the world over, including Matthias Wivel’s and my own BLÆK and the upcoming Kolor Klimax, as well as the great Finnish series Glömp, to name but a few examples from our neck of the woods.
Its two successors — 5 and 6 — were outstanding too; 6 especially mixed up the formula in a surprising way with remarkable short works by Suihō Tagawa and Marc Smeets.
And now Kramers Ergot 8 is out. Lavishly produced in conventional book format, cloth bound and gold embossed, it delivers a perfect pastiche on seventies Science Fiction design. Pastiche? Yes, pastiche. The overture is a series of full spread illustrations by Robert Beatty that are not necessarily bad, but undeniably related to the kind of kitsch cosmic airbrush fantasies that were all the rage among street vendor-artists in the nineties.
This is followed by a sequel to Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Notes on Camp” entitled “Notes on Camp II,” written by the musician Ian Svenonius. Sontag’s original — and excellent — essay was an intelligent and much-needed challenge to the then-stagnating and hopelessly out-of-touch conception of high culture versus popular culture that legitimized the aesthetic appreciation of comics and other forms as art incompatible with high-art sensibilities. The present follow-up offers half-baked and half-bright babble on Andy Warhol, religious history, the Roman empire, and underground comics. A non-starter.
Then comes the first “real” comic, by none other than Gary Panter, whose reputation as the originator of American art comics (or punk comics) has deservedly grown in the last decade or so. But this outing of his signature Jimbo character is a dull, mechanical, metaphorical lark on the blessings of the detour. It does not exactly heighten one’s expectations for the rest of the book.
A few pages on we get Johnny Ryan with a Prison Pit-like rampage. Fun and energetic for what it is, but wait… it suddenly brings to mind Kramers Ergot 5, which spiked its great punch with Mat Brinkman’s small masterpiece “M.L.E,” a spirited mash-up of Jack Kirby and Gary Panter that established the kind of fucked-up mayhem on which Johnny Ryan has since been riffing in Prison Pit. Dejà vu or dull cover? It is hard to get particularly worked up about it in either case.
There are fine contributions in the book, but as a whole it is a sad disappointment, which above all suggests a crisis in American art comics. Porn and kitsch are the recurrent themes — not surprisingly a rather dry well to draw from — and the whole shebang is capped off by an historical seventies reprint of “Wicked Wanda,” a camp, soft porn indulgence by Frederic Mullally og Ron Embleton. Not exactly the most promising of artistic statements.
As an ensemble piece, Kramers Ergot 8 is tiring, uninspired and, most notably, decadent. If one compares with the shock and awe of holding Kramers Ergot 4 in one’s hands for the first time back in 2003, it is just a terribly depressing showing. That seductive, infectious, almost electrical feeling is long gone.Innovation, consolidation, dissolution, amen. It is the logical progression of a period of artistic development. But perhaps Harkham should have pulled the plug while he was still on top. Don’t get me wrong: Harkham is a great editor, a hugely important presence in art comics, Dan Nadel’s Picture Box is the most consistently exciting comics publisher in America, and Kramers Ergot was where it was at in 2003 and the years that followed — not just as a counterpoint to the excesses of industrial mainstream superheroics, but also to the bourgeois aspirations of the graphic novel movement. It was fresh as baby breath, the real deal. But now it is over.
(And where is that next shit today? I don’t know. I haven’t found it).