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The annual Small Press Expo, which took place last month in Bethesda, Md., is a gathering of the most innovative talent and all that’s truly exciting in the field of graphic narrative. From that cross section of the teeming universe of comics art, here are some of the standouts:
For all the comics being made today, only a handful might be called important, and Madison Clell’s series, “Cuckoo,” qualifies. It’s the author’s ongoing investigation into her multiple personality disorder, and the memories of the childhood rape that triggered it. “Cuckoo” is harrowing, difficult reading, but it’s also an amazing union of content and form. For instance, by simply depicting her alternate personalities graphically as distinct characters, sometimes nested inside a sketchy shell of herself, Clell helps make her disorder comprehensible. Her honesty and the intimacy somehow inherent in self-published comics keep her story out of the realm of made-for-TV-movie sensationalism and melodrama.
The art of comics
One happy trend in evidence at Small Press Expo was the rise of a number of publishers releasing books that are as much art objects as comics. Often small and silk-screened in muted palettes, these beautifully crafted volumes usually feature simple but highly stylized drawings and quiet, personal stories. This year Highwater Books debuted Ron Rege’s enigmatic “Skibber Bee-Bye.” A young woman and her younger brother lead an idyllic life in a tree house amid odd, fluttering, fairylike creatures. The siblings seem too fragile for life in the real world, and seldom venture into the nearby city. A business-suited elephant, uneasy in both worlds, is smitten with the woman but never manages to connect with her, despite his desperate efforts. Rege’s visual grammar is familiar from the funny pages, but he employs it so quirkily that reading it is like listening to someone speak one’s native language in an unfamiliar foreign dialect. “Skibber Bee-Bye” begs repeated readings before it surrenders all its secrets.
At a typical comics convention the only language besides English you’re likely to hear is Klingon, but creators from around the world come to Small Press Expo to share their work. East Berliner Anke Feuchtenberger, one of the new group of Swiss and German cartoonists dubbed the “Mutanten,” creates mythologically inspired feminist allegories, drawn in a striking, primal style reminiscent of primitive art. Her work centers on the body — not the romanticized figure, but the grotty, sensual flesh — yet it resists glib interpretations. In her take on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, a mermaid tries to become human by slicing its tail in two. Blood streams from between its “legs,” but “dies ist nicht das richtige blut” — “this is not the right blood. The woman’s blood comes from somewhere else.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, perhaps, are the photocopied minicomics of Missy Kulik. With cute doodly art and titles such as “Where’s a Cookie?,” “Thrift Store Finds” and “Cats I Know,” these pint-sized funny books are infectious expressions of pure girlie goodness. Plus they come with stickers! (Stickers rule!)
So it’s not all high art, but at Small Press Expo even the hard-boiled thrillers are top-notch. “Whiteout” and its sequel “Whiteout: Melt” follow the adventures of Carrie Stetko, a U.S. marshal with “brass ovaries,” exiled to Antarctica to keep the peace — harder than it sounds, what with murderous gold thieves and stolen nukes all over the place. Paired with celebrated crime novelist Greg Rucka is artist Steve Lieber, a veteran of mainstream comics whose style is rooted more in the traditions of old-school illustrators than in “what’s hot” trends. At least as important as Lieber’s depictions of the desperate characters in “Whiteout” is his skillful expression of the vastness and ever-present menace of the icy environment.
Lieber has said that the Small Press Expo is the only comics convention he attends that leaves him feeling better about the art form than he felt when he arrived. Venerable cartoonist Will Eisner, creator of “The Spirit” in the ’40s and granddaddy of the comics-as-art movement, concurs. After spending the weekend among comics’ up-and-comers, he announced, “the medium is in good hands.” Hear, hear.
WHERE TO GET 'EM
To order Madison Clell’s “Cuckoo,” see her Web site: www.cuckoocomic.com.
For info on Ron Rege’s “Skibber Bee-Bye” and other books, see: www.highwaterbooks.com.
Send Missy Kulik a couple bucks for some of her minicomics: 24 Longvue Circle, Ambridge, PA 15005.
Sean Bieri is a freelance designer totally immersed in comics culture. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.