I have a tendency to recognize that at comic shows so much is going on and so many people are interacting that managing to take home some books always seems to happen of its own accord as I'm distracted by conversations, panels, locating and consuming enough coffee, and generally trying to get a grip on the vibe of a particular event. Having said that, I'm never disappointed.
When I get home and dump out my luggage, there are always more books that have managed to find me than I thought, and they are always impressive, interesting, even emotive and reassuring about the state of comic production right now. MoCCA Fest last weekend in New York, of course, brought out a new high watermark in the level of artistic skill and personal vision as a show dedicated to small press and indie comics. These are the 25 comics, 6 postcards, 2 prints, 2 buttons, and 1 poster that managed to find me at MoCCA Fest and I'm quite grateful they did.
From Selfmade Hero, The Cigar That Fell in Love with a Pipe debuted the same week as MoCCA Fest. It's a lovely hardcover in lush written by David Camus and illustrated rather gorgeously by Nick Abadzis. It tells a story with disparate elements all linked by ephemeral and enduring passions, but the central force that really holds the narrative together is Conchita, a renowned cigar craftsperson, and her history and final days. It links to the Golden Age of Hollywood and features Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth.
What makes this book a triumph is the way in which Abadzis' work handles a kind of psychological magic realism with poetic grace as well as an unflagging earthiness. When I looked at the book closely, I recognized images that I'd seen Abadzis posting online in process and even that his vast spreads of tiny white squares "planning a graphic novel" were in fact this book and it gave me an even deeper sense of the vast artistic process that went into this colorful and compelling book. Some of the images in the book will remain in your imagination, perhaps forever.
My prior experience with Billy Dogma comics made Fear My Dear: A Billy Dogma Experience by Dean Haspiel a book that's been long in the coming, bringing to print comics that I had previously seen in smaller segments online. Being a print buff, it meant a lot to me to finally hold this perfectly square and tightly bound volume in my hands, bringing together the narratives in their natural arc as a unit (though there are some related stories that also exist to complete the full picture of Billy's journeys through love and personal struggle).
It was exhilarating to see the design of the book balanced to the compositional structure of the comics–that's geek speak for the book is square, the panels are all square, and presented 4 per page or full page spreads. The "beats" of the storytelling worked so well when laid out in this way that the book harmonizes with the comics' digital origin in a virtuous way. Billy Dogma, following epic struggles in love and life with Jane Legit, is larger that life and the format does him justice as he encounters alien forces, leaps, fights, and argues, and even descends into the underworld to grapple with his own hero legacy. Haspiel's work takes to large format with unflinching and amusing bravado, and it'll grip your own emotions with its relentless hero-arc explorations. This was an early release from Z2 Comics.
Escapo is a book I've heard a lot about leading up to its release, remastering the work of Paul Pope, now appearing in a large hardback edition (this one vertical) also from Z2 Comics. What I see here is classic Paul Pope presented under ideal conditions, bursting with life, color, and ink. This feels like a "new" book very much on par with Battling Boy and One Trick Rip Off.
This is the largest format in which I've yet seen Pope's work and the quality, again, holds up when writ large. In fact, I could well argue that all his work needs to be seen in this larger format for full appreciation. It reminds me of what I heard in a panel on Design in Comics at MoCCA Fest, that increasingly it's hard to produce graphic novels in the formats the artwork demands as mainstream publishers try to box and crop them into standard sizes. Z2 Comics, thankfully, has bucked that trend and the result argues for a book dictating its own presentation needs. Escapo focuses on "doomed love" in a circus, and Pope is at his weird best in this dream-like and morphing narrative. It's really a book to look out for.
Another indie great, Noah Van Sciver, had a book debuting at MoCCA Fest, the new Youth is Wasted from Adhouse Books. I knew that the book was coming up, and had seen a cover online, but didn't realize I'd be able to see the book in the flesh so soon, so this was a very pleasant surprise. Noah Van Sciver's work has always produced quite a fascination in me. His panels are so densely populated and full of emotive line work that there's no mistaking a "Van Sciver" atmosphere unlike any other artist working today. His interests in folk tales and 19th century history are as pronounced as his ability to bring in daily detail. The man has range in terms of subject matter that really astonishes.
This book is a softcover collection of comics in vignette style, and I have to say I love the red accent lines of the cover which conveys the intensity of Van Sciver's comics very well. The stories show in detail the aforementioned range of subject matter. Contentious and yet hopeful sallies into relationships, stories of being "buried alive" like a modern take on Poe, demons and ghoulies and all things in between like the "Water Sprite". You get the picture. Van Sciver compilations have no boundaries between tales and there's an uneasy permeability to the narratives that suggest one world with many dimensions. This book is fabulously unpredictable.
Now we get into the floppies or "minis" that MoCCA Fest is known for, the self-published comics that have been untouched by the heavy editorial hand of any large publisher, and for that reason they are tremendously exciting. You feel you're at the origin point of new, unfiltered ideas in comics. Here we have "The Giant Effect" by newcomer Christa Cassano. For a mini comic, this has impressive production values with a glossy card cover and even endpapers. It's an unsettling mythological tale of a giant who tends sheep, all told in sepia-toned realism and there's distinctive visceral energy to each panel. There's violence and pathos, and a multi-cultural universal feel to the highly original narrative. This book pretty much represents the strengths of MoCCA Fest for bringing new comics and comics creators to light.
Josh Neufeld has marked his return to new comic production in New York with this third issue of his self-published series The Vagabonds, and this is the "journalism issue" taking on an international stage. In fairly large format, with glossy card covers and interior matter on the covers, this is also a finely produced comic from the newly launched Hang Dai Editions out of Brooklyn. Well, Neufeld is an established master of autobio narratives, here in full color, and the quality of the work and the production make it a contender for any comic shop more or less proving that self-published works can rival publishing houses. The stories include narratives of Super Storm Sandy, concerns for Taiwan and Bahrain, and generally catch you up on Neufeld's travels and experiences the last few years, but all with his trademark humor and questioning attitude. How can essentially "serious" comics be so entertaining? It's all in the tone and Neufeld's is very inviting.
Jess Ruliffson's work telling the narratives of wounded Veterans has produced the mini print edition Invisible Wounds, from So What? Press and it captured a MoCCA Fest award for excellence this year. It has an unassuming exterior, as if to give deference to the weight of the story it contains. Ruliffson's inking is light but loaded with emotion and reflection, and the true story content makes it an up close and personal reading experience hearing the voices of vets who for many reasons have felt that they can't publicly convey their experiences. It's a big win for comics journalism bringing difficult subjects to readers.
This I was not expecting from the author and illustrator of foreboding and intense narratives like Vacationland Volumes One and Two. His "silly animal" covers really gave me pause. Jonathan Allen is one of those comics craftsmen who make you, as a reader, feel that every single molecule of ink has been delivered with utmost control exactly where it tells the story best in a massive process of elimination. He reminds me a bit of Jeff Smith in that way, and these comics, "Ohio Is For Sale", one from last year and one from this year's MoCCA Fest, do have some similarities artistically on that front. These are just so freaking adorable and disturbing that I really don't know where to start. Our cute animal characters live in a deadpan world of struggle, and the second issue takes us deeper into the strange and devlish. It's a crime that people can't yet pick these up in their local shops.
Glynnis Fawkes is a contributor of comics to parenting websites and takes a walk on the wild side of mythology on a regular basis. She's a world traveler steeped in ancient history and as a young parent of two kids, their antics become natural subject matter for the flip side of her comics production. Here we have a "kids stories" anthology "The Story of the Cheese" and her large-format mini excerpt of "The Decameron" by Boccaccio. Fawkes line work is so graceful that even the most earthy conversation with her kids becomes poetic while remaining strongly grounded in modern life. Unsurprisingly, this new kids stories collection features WINTER WINTER WINTER in her native Vermont since this past winter has been so brutal and I could really relate. When she dives into the Decameron she captures my mind with her flowing colors and innovative composition formats. Her distinctive and honest narrative voice will woo anyone who comes in contact with it.
So What? Press has been busy this MoCCA Fest in a bumper year for growth with two tales related to their Night Watchman series. Here we have Tales of the Night Watchman: Staycation, featuring the female lead from the paranormal noir series cast in the bright sunlight of a beach story, expanding your feel for her as a character. It gives writer Dave Kelly and artist Lara Antal a chance to show off their feel for pacing and up close human interaction to remind us that the Night Watchman stories are really about the human perspective on strangeness, whether daily life or things far beyond normal human ken.
The Night Watchman stories return to their supernatural roots with this locally set Gowanus, Brooklyn story, which is quite full and finely produced in large format with matte card covers in color, Tales of the Night Watchman Presents: It Came From the Gowanus Canal. This one is drawn by Molly Ostertag in black and white with noir shadings of grey that are reminiscent of newsprint from the inspiring noir context of the comic, even as the story is set in modern times. Ostertag's style is a delight with her crisp edges and feel for movement, capable of making you believe in just about any strange event. MoCCA Fest is home to many genre comics, and this is the strongest noir/occult comic that I saw at the show by a long shot.
Molly Ostertag was also at the show supporting her webcomic series with writer Brennan Mulligan, Strong Female Protagonist, which I first heard about at MoCCA Fest a couple of years ago. The series not only features Ostertag's stellar artwork taking on a superhero world, but as the title suggests, takes a no holds barred approach to presenting a realistic female hero who struggles with her role and the generally whiny and difficult society in which she operates. This broadsheet, produced to let readers into the world of the comic, tells the story of Mega Girl coming "out of the closet" as a hero by Mulligan, and Ostertag presents a separate narrative explaining the origins of Mega Girl as a "biodynamic" individual. Teasingly, the newspaper seems to be part of a bigger narrative that trails off, giving you that tactile sense of Mega Girl's world. It's a great emissary for the comic, and highlights the thought and consistency of the universe they've created.
Gideon Kendall is the established illustrator on quite a few books, but the past couple of years has made the leap into comics at full tilt. His series Whatzit, a bizarre coming of age story featuring a socially stunted alien species intersecting with earthly youthful woes of a central male character, has been appearing on the webcomics platform ActivateComix, hinting at great things from his polished style to his very distinctive aesthetic reveling in the strange and textured. His is a wild imagination and his confidence in creating worlds is a stand-out aspect of his work. This Fest, he brought the first printed issue of Whatzit in full and gloriously detailed color, as well as the first issue of Wait…It Gets Worse by Kendall and Doug Latino, a mix of humorous stories by the two writer-artists, some in collaboration. It's a remarkable thing, reminding me a little of Evan Dorkin's zany sense of humor, with a little Mad Magazine influence, perhaps thrown in. We need more humor comics and this was heartening to find. It's high quality in glossy cover and pages, some in grey tones and some in color.
Their compatriots Jay Neuegeboren and Eli Neuegeboren brought issue 1 of Tidewater to the Fest also, the comics adaptation of a novel Sam's Legacy by Jay, subtitled "My Life and Death in the Negro American Baseball League, A Slave Narrative". From that you can glean that the subject matter is under-represented in comics and in culture in general, featuring the life and times of African-American baseball players in the lead up to the founding of the Negro American Baseball League, an achievement which was almost certainly not followed by a walk in the park. Eli presents the comics narrative interspersed with the type-script memoirs of Mason Tidewater, the "Black Babe", and unpacks the visuals in a way that really focuses on the human roles in the narrative.
Finding the Sinkhole Anthology was a surprise, though I am partial to anthologies. The general consensus among indie creators is that anthologies are hard to sell, but that logic bounces off me since I appreciate the carnivalesque tour of comics they offer. It's the first book produced by fledgling Sinkhole Press out of Indiana, and has some artistic power behind the debut. Contributors include Andrew Scott (who's also an educator bringing comics in the college classroom), Charles Paul Wilson III (of Wraith with Joe Hill from IDW), Eduardo Herrera, Havard S. Johansen (who has several large-format graphic novels out in Norway), Josh Dawkins, Scott Parker, and Sigbjorn Lilleeng. The governing force behind the anthology is simply to band together and produce strong independent comics in a number of styles on a number of subjects, and the book makes a case for the return of collectives presenting what's best about creator-owned work. It's an exciting book with plenty of commitment to personal vision and passion for comics.
Rick Flash & The Adventurenauts was another surprise, since I immediately recognized that a large (super large) composition on an easel, composed on wood, was the black and white origin-point for the cover of the comic by artist Mark Pate, who proceeded to explain his process in using charcoal on prepared wood to avoid the fluffiness of paper in response to charcoal erasure. The texture of the original work can be clearly seen in the cover, making it slightly grainy and wholly unique. His work on the first issue of the series was supporting a charity at MoCCA Fest and working on donations. The series is a "sitcom" 1950's sci-fi narrative, taking a slight campiness to a new level with exclamations like "Adventure!". It'll be a series to keep an eye on as Pate continues to bring fine art aspects to genre comics.
This is one of those comics that most people won't have or have heard of, but I got it from the author, Josh Frankel (publisher of Z2 Comics) particularly because he knew I liked the work of Toby Cypress (Dark Horse's The White Suits with Frank Barbiere), and indeed, I was glad to have this self-published book from a few years back. So, if you want this comic, you'll probably have to contact Frankel since he holds the remaining copies. If you're a fan of Cypress, I suggest you do. His work on The Schizophrenic is pulpy, energetic, and dayglo-colored. I consider it a collector's piece.
The Magic Bullet returns from the Washington DC area, a free broadsheet comics newspaper I can count on (may it always thrive). I bumped into contributor and comics writer/journalist Adam McGovern and was fortunate to get a copy. Issue #8 is out, and for me the cover spells "Spring" with its strange beasts and alluring colors. It's thoroughly packed with vibrant styles and diverse subjects in comics from humor to sci-fi and hero tales. We need to cling on to this indie comics production and hopefully see the gradual return of the free comics newspaper that used to be so much more common. Others have been inspired by Magic Bullet, however, and so there's hope yet.
Frank Reynoso blew my mind by handing me this comic he had created with aforementioned Adam McGovern, Calling All Kids! since I had no idea that the two were collaborating and my brush with McGovern had been much earlier in the day and unrelated. It's an all-ages comic in large format and full-color, and gave me my first glimpse of Reynoso's work in a full comic narrative, having only seen his sketches and inks before. Boy does he have a grip on his own style and it's likely to be very appealing in the all-ages sphere. I promptly suggested that the two speak to the UK-based kids comics magazine The Phoenix, since this is what the issue reminded me of with its energy, sci-fi themes, and a degree of polish ready for wide distribution. To be fair, it would also make a great kids graphic novel and they have plenty of options if they want to go that route, too.
Now we get into strange happenstance when it comes to the comics that found me at MoCCA Fest. This one was lying on a chair next to me in a panel discussion and when the room had cleared fully and no one had claimed it, I did not leave it homeless. What is it? It is a kind of 'Zine, perhaps produced through stamping for publication, on a mauve, soft paper with, of course, heavy inks and a fully designed feel. It's stapled and has 8 pages if you count the fold-over cover. The name "Pratt" features prominently so I looked it up. It's in fact a "Super Sampler" of A.T. Pratt's work and it spells underground comix through and through. Well done on viral marketing, Pratt, since your comic really did find me. It's dense and interesting, each page giving plenty of time for scanning potential.
It really is hard to leave comics homeless when I see them lying around. I know that work and care have gone into them and plus, they're just interesting. The last two comics that found me were issues 5 and 7 of an all-ages comic called Quicken Forbidden which were lying in a freebie stack at the Fest. They are from Cryptic Press, it turns out, and since I didn't know what to expect, I stared a little when I opened the first one. The art is highly accomplished and appealing, done by John Green with writer Dave Roman. The comics appear to be from the late '90's and the covers, particularly, are a lot of fun and confidently playful. There are mysteries and aliens and such. Whatever happened to the series, I wish the team well since they produced a quality work.
So now we move onto my 6 postcards, which I'll be brief about given the length of this article. There were many, many postcards at MoCCA Fest and I only wish I had gathered more, but these were a pleasant surprise when I dumped out my luggage. The heavy books fell down suddenly, the minis drifted at a slight lag, and the postcards spun around like snowflakes, landing last. In the lower right corner we have two by Ada Price which are quite lovely and fluid in style, one a page from her "memory comic" Wandering Returns. Moving left and upwards, we have 2 by Ryan Covell, both relating to what appears to be a graphic novel or comic The Cutest Cubist with Picasso connections. I like the rounded edges and flat, bright colors. We also have a promo card for Jiro Taniguchi's A Zoo in Winter, set in Kyoto in 1966 and looking suitably reflective, from Ponent Mon Press. Lastly we have the rather grippy Brooklyn munching terror creature promoting Comic Arts Brooklyn show returning in November 2014. That's reassuring at the end of MoCCA Fest. There's more goodness to come.
But then there are my two prints, the last thing that reached me at the show, by Christa Cassano (previously mentioned for her comic "The Giant Effect"). These are her alien girls, the potential source of a new comic, and there's no mistaking their striking, ethereal quality, picking out the white points of starfields on a chalky black night sky. There's so much mystery in these figures, and a poised beauty, that I can't wait for a comics incarnation.
And when I dumped things out, I heard the chink of metal faintly, so I searched around for the buttons. These were from Pantheon Books. There were many buttons at the show, but Pantheon actually pointed them out and said "take some", so I did. Here I recognize, of course, Persepolis. One should never come home from an indie show without some buttons. That would be a failure of cultural tradition.
But I did lie about one thing. There was one thing I did set out to "find" on my own and hoped I'd manage, something from Fiona Staples (Saga from Image) the honored guest of MoCCA Fest. It was the tail end of the show, and I figured she would probably be sold out of anything brought to the show, or perhaps no longer be at her front-and-center-table. And yet there she was, and not sold out despite constant lines and chats with uber fans. And she was unremittingly graceful and talkative despite the long hours and constant work of the show. Thanks for bringing such enthusiasm and poise to MoCCA Fest, Fiona. And I got what I wanted, this lovely poster print.
I have no complaints whatsoever about what found me at MoCCA Fest. Any more and I would've taken the whole show home with me.
Hannah Means-Shannon is EIC at Bleeding Cool and @hannahmenzies on Twitter