As someone who prefers to get stuck into a good long comic, where the opportunity to connect and associate with characters and invest in a world is greater, I was never much of reader of anthologies, providing as they do short strips or stories and often being jarringly inconsistent in terms of contributions. Over the past year, I’ve read a whole host of excellent anthologies: Solipsistic Pop, ink + Paper, Nobrow, Neufundland, Karagoz, to name a few favourites, and have been happy to be proven wrong in many instances of my initial assessment.
This thirteenth volume of s! with its widely encompassing theme of ‘Life is Live’ sees artists ruminating on a variety of personal emotions, events and instances that make up life and give it its unique sheen. The trouble with reviewing anthologies like Kus’ Baltic Comics Magazine is the sheer amount of interesting, quality contributions -some of which work, some not quite.
Some highlights then: Ines Estrada childhood recollection of finding a washed up jellyfish is wonderfully illustrated and coloured: she manages to make the jellyfish look so luminescent and meaty, her art imbuing the story with a verve that parallels the excitement of discovery and the quavery opportunistic delight of the kids solemnly peeing on their friend.
Equally vivid is Ingrid Picukane’s visceral memory of having her unruly hair brushed into painful submission: Picukane’s silent illustrations, beginning in bubble shaped panels and then breaking free of the borders in acute pain, loom intensely on the page. The clenched fists, closed watering eyes, and upturned face as though in prayer or repentance, signify the strength of her emotions. Indeed, the whole process is reminiscent of religion, ritual and sacrifice- a cleansing, being tested by pain, an offering of tangled hair, and the eventual bestowing of shiny, unknotted locks.
Berliac’s The Rodent is stunningly powerful: 2 pages that fuse together to create something disturbing and compelling: a page full of tight, relentless text with ominous crossing outs and underlinings boding an unsettled mood and its opposite partner- a man with his back to the page, face obscured, surrounded and slowly engulfed by darkness. The atmosphere Berliac conjures would be lost if you had to turn the page to get from one to the other, but side by side it’s simmeringly effective. Bianca Bagnerlli’s tale of belonging and stolen prosthetics builds nicely, the laissez faire attitude perpetuated by the cool landscape and exquisite sky at tension with the feelings of her main character.
Ana Albero’s style is gorgeous: a primped and curled retro black and white tale of anxiety, and Oleg Tischenkov’s intermittent man and cat narratives have an easy humour and a sweet quality, his cat- very sphinx like and dry and yet a dreamer, an extension of Tischenkov himself, you suspect- a way of talking and thinking things over (you can read his cat and man comic strips online here).
I’m a big fan of Thomas Wellman’s cartooning and usually enjoy his story-telling too, but his narrative here fell short on many levels- encompassing dream sequences, relationships, meanings behind meanings- it’s confused, cliched and over-reaching, At 12 pages, it’s one of the longer contributions in the book and that length is felt, which is rarely a good sign.
I’m also yet to ‘get’ anything I’ve read of Ian Anderson’s: here a story about gathering all the snot from his endlessly runny nose and using it as a lucrative raw material. As much as taste is subjective, it left me indifferent. There’s a rather pointless contribution by somebody called HTML Flowers, I’m all for individual style and experimentation, but there’s bringing stylised naivete to your work, and then there’s producing a comic in which neither the art or the text is discernible to the reader:
Marlene Karuse does something similar, legibly, and to much better effect:
Johnny Negron chips in with a typically beautiful effort that could be pored over for a few hours, as does Dace Sietina with the cyclical Life is Compost, an astonishingly textured piece that is all beads and embroidery influences bought to the page. Julia Gfrorer submits a surprisingly underwhelming (in the sense that her work usually carries a kick of some sort) glimpse of people being people and people being beastly.
Kus’ main value lies in the variety of engaging texts they pull together. One of the anthologies traditional roles is to act as a gateway, and that’s the thing Kus do best: curate artists who you’ve never heard of before and provide an introduction to what they’re doing. s! functions really well as a showcase, particularly in terms of the number of differing art styles on display and the number of shorts and strips, but that works against it too- leaving this volume with little narrative resonance or depth, apart from the odd emotional shot delivered from the more outstanding contributions. A mixed bag, but worth a look.