Sunday, February 17, 2008

Crickets #2

Although Sammy Harkham ’s Crickets #2 continues the serial Black Death begun in #1, the issue marks a radical departure in his approach to the title, signaled most visibly by the stunning cover, in which bold colors run into and around drawings of the comic’s many characters.

Issue 2 is an anthology, featuring 13 stories that range in length from a single panel to 15 pages (for the second part of Black Death, the sole story in #1.) And there's a new focus: comedy. Scenes of slap-stick humor weave their way throughout many pieces, with characters tripping, falling into (and out of) wells, and getting buckets stuck on their head. All of this action is accompanied by cartoony stars, sound effects, and curly motion/emotion lines drawn in a style reminiscent of early 20th-century newspaper strips like Rudolph Dirks’s Katzenjammer Kids.


Katzenjammer Kids:

While physical comedy is common, Harkham is equally at home working in many different modes: the fantasy aspects of Black Death, the harsh reality of father-daughter drama in Mother Fucker, the bible adaptation of Elisha, and light comic autobiography—a series of strips recounts moments from a tour with cartoonists Kevin H. and Anders Nilsen (with guest appearances from Gary Panter and C. F.). Harkham edits the massive and influential international art/comics anthology Kramer Ergot, and Crickets 2 reads a little like an issue of MAD magazine might if they put him in charge . . .

Like many of the artists I admire, Harkham creates stories that seamlessly shift between different emotional registers. Black Death, a picaresque narrative in which a wounded man, a Golem, and a donkey wander through a forest and encounter all sorts of dilemmas, is equal parts physical comedy and psychological drama. It moves between scenes of slapstick and explorations of Jewish mysticism (with a touching 3-page black and white flashback about the Golem’s origin and exile)

and ends with a horrifying, perfectly-paced cliff-hanger. Harkham ’s beautiful fine line work ensures that every story (even the one with the Johnny Ryan punch-line) has a sense of delicacy, no matter how high or low the comedy, or how violent the scene. The panels are always beautiful to look at, especially Black Death’s forest scenes, which are colored in a way that's a little denser and looser than issue 1. Here's a panel from #2:

from #1:

Harkham is one of group of younger cartoonists deeply interested in the medium’s history, and his work makes it clear that he thinks carefully about the techniques he uses. The issue begins with a story about Napoleon (the general and gag cartoonist) that explores how drawing eyes as dots affects a reader’s reaction to a character. This approach is fundamental for Harkham, and so the opening story works as a kind of commentary on the narratives to follow, and it encourages readers to think about his cartooning styles in general.

[One of the things that works well in the above panels is the way that, after a discussion of empathy and drawing, Harkham shifts to a very long shot of the army in which no eyes can be seen, withdrawing from us the thing he had just discussed.] And Napoleon’s struggle with a deadline prefigures Harkham ’s own; two of the short strips towards the issue’s end deal with the gap between issues of Crickets.

The comic is full of magical transformations (the Golem), grotesque characters (The Elephant Man), and violence, bringing together Harkham ’s interesting in religious traditions, horror movies (he draws himself as a werewolf in #1), and freaks. In Elisha, he retells the story of the biblical prophet in a dead-pan, lightly comic manner in which the dramatic cadence of biblical language is replaced by casual, 21st-century conversational dialogue -- yet it maintains a kind of intensity. The story is only 2 pages long, but at nearly 70 panels it has a density comparable to many entire comic books (I read a recent Marvel comic in 3 minutes, less time than it took to read Elisha).

[The book has a few funny visual puns like the one above: the holy man with his 'head in the clouds'.] The prophet revives a dead boy by breathing into his mouth as the prophet's face melts into the boy’s, a transformation that’s echoed on the issue’s cover as a face melts into thick streams of color. In a way, these kinds of transformations are symbolic of the issue's approach to genres, in which so many tropes from one genre blend into another.

Harkham's restrained use of color is a real highlight -- below is a sequence from the comic's last strip, which uses a palette different from the others:

This strip returns to characters from Harkham's Somersaulting, which appeared in Drawn and Quarterly Showcase 3. Here's a row of panels from Somersaulting that shows another approach to color and demonstrates Harkham's sparse sense of panel composition -- I also like the dramatic contrast from panel to panel (a lot of the connecting actions are 'left out') which makes for an unsual sequence:

If all you knew about 'alternative comics' came from sources like the message boards at, you might get the idea that an art comic or an art comics anthology is just autobiographical or fictional stories about guys whining or doing nothing. But, Crickets is a great response to any such argument: Harkham tells a wide range of stories and displays considerable skill at all of the crafts (drawing, dialogue, lettering, coloring, pacing, etc) necessary for great cartooning.