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Art by Chip Zdarsky. Copyright 2002.

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KRAMERS ERGOT #4
Reviewed by Adam Ford

by various artists
Avodah Books
$24.99

I first saw KRAMERS ERGOT number four at Tim Danko's house the week he was packing to move to New Zealand. I picked it up and started reading and the conversation went on above my head for the next twenty minutes or so as I turned each page to reveal a new wonderful comic and tried to suppress the instinctive ooh-ing and aah-ing that the pages inspired.

My review copy arrived one Friday night a few months later while I was at a party in the city. Craig had been to our post-office box and when he got to the party he pulled out a giant cardboard package and handed it to me. I knew exactly what it was and tore the package open immediately. After a quick flip to remind me of what was inside, I passed the comic around like a proud father. The looks of rapture I received from my comic-making friends as they reluctantly passed it back to me were exactly what I'd hoped for. Craig told me if he'd known what was in the package he would have opened it himself and read it cover to cover before giving it to me. I understood perfectly.

KRAMERS is a 200-plus-page anthology of comics and illustrations encased in a crayon-coloured cover depicting some kind of carapaced humanoid figure striding across a rainbow. Inside you'll find the work of some thirty-odd artists working in almost every medium conceivable: lineart on exercise-book paper, coloured pencils, crayons, collages stuck on torn up boxes, solid inks, grey waterpaint washes, bold guache blocks of primary colours - you name it. Some of the stories feel like they've been written on the spot with no revision, real stream-of-consciousness narratives. Some of the art has a real childlike naievete to it, almost like a slightly more sophisticated kind of outsider art. Some of the comics are disjointed and surreal like outsider art, but sometimes that approach feels indulgent and lazy - sure, it's big and striking and weird and colourful, but is that enough? For many of the contributors to KRAMERS, the answer, happily, is no, that's not enough. These comic artists understand the importance of story-telling and have explored the possibilities of narrative as much as they have the possibilities of drawing.

Reviewing anthologies is always tricky - trying to provide an all-encompassing take on the book as a whole is often impossible. You end up having to be content with making lists of what you like. That's cool. I'm okay with that. Here's my list of people who I discovered for the first time in KRAMERS, my list of people who made me scream with pleasure and vow to track down complete catalogues of their entire body of work to date:

Anders Nielsen - Sisyphus
Nilsen's sparse, open linework is beguiling in its obvious simplicity and hidden complexity. He has two short stories in this issue, both featuring Sisyphus (the character from Greek mythology who's cursed to push a boulder uphill for eternity) and a nosy, talkative goose. The second story, featuring the Minotaur's pontification on the tragedy and irony of love, is my favourite.

David Lasky & Frank Young - The Carter Family
A simple retelling of a true incident in the life of the famous country music band, what makes this strip so good is its use of techniques evocative of 50s-era newspaper strips: the recurring title logo, the flat-but-vivid colouring, and the linework reminiscent of strips like Gasoline Alley.

Marc Bell - There is No Escape
The main section of this comic is a bizarre story that reads like Captain Beefheart and Esquivel collaborating on a long-form nursery-rhyme. Bell's intricate, colourful and ubercartoony artwork is the kind of thing you could linger over for days. And the internal logic of the baffling story had me laughing and scratching and double-taking in slack-jawed amazement.

John Hankiewicz - Hanshaw Development
A dark fragmentary story of mutual dislike and manipulation. The spare use of block pastel colours for only the protagonists' jackets is a lovely touch, accenting the clean lines of the rest of the art.

Sammy Harkham - Poor Sailor
This is a very black story of compounded loss and death, told with almost no dialogue. Despite its apparently cruel intent, its subtext is one of hope and its tranquil pacing is a great counterpoint to the violence depicted. Harkham's black and white art is minimal and evocative, with lots of lovely pauses for scene-to-scene transitions.

Souther Salazar - Give me Drumrolls Forever & Please Don't Give Up
Sketchy lineart cut and pasted onto different backgrounds, the text also hand-written and cut out to be scattered around the figures. These two comics read like illustrated poems, with the imagery serving to accompany and elaborate on - rather than illustrate - the text. Please Don't Give Up is a breathtaking work that is painted, drawn and stuck onto what looks like torn up cardboard boxes.

Jeffrey Brown - Don't Look Them In the Eye
Slice of life stuff about scruffy inner-city indie kids, but an endearing take on rather than an indulgent one. Brown's characters have a kindness and a hope about them that makes their day-to-day activities that much more interesting.

What I like about all of the above comics is their sense of fun, their sense of play, their sense of adventure, their sense of joy and their sense of hope - which comes across even when the stories themselves are really dark.

This is the concluding paragraph where I'm supposed to say something insightful that ties all previous observations together in a neat, pithy statement that makes the reader want to go right out and buy the book (and if it makes me look clever, then that's an added bonus). But all I can think to say about KRAMERS is: to those who made it - Congratulations. It's beautiful. You must be very proud.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

 


Adam Ford is a regular contributor to PopImage, creator of the online comic GODLINGS, a novelist, poet, journalist, zine-maker and big fat stupid-head. For more of Adam's comics, insight and reviews check out labyrinth.net.au/~adamford.


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