When Words Collide: MoCCA 2011

Tue, April 12th, 2011 at 10:58am PDT

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer
1

OF COURSE IT'S ABOUT THE ART

MoCCA Festival Poster

On Saturday, as my family spent the day hanging out with monkeys and eating ice cream at the Central Park Zoo, I hopped over to the MoCCA Festival for a few hours. And it was kind of perfect.

I've been going to the MoCCA Festival every year for at least six years now. It's one of my favorite shows in the world, even if I never end up staying all that long and even if I don't leave with a huge stack of minicomics and books (this year I did leave with a sizeable stack, though I'll only talk about a couple of the books this week), I always leave feeling optimistic and enthusiastic about comics.

It's a stark contrast to most comic book conventions, of any size, because the focus of the MoCCA booths are so much about the comics of today and tomorrow and the focus of almost every other convention tends to be on what happened yesterday. The miles of longboxes and discounted trade paperbacks from years ago. The rows of action figures, mint-in-package. The veteran creators signing comic after comic.

That's not what MoCCA is, or what it ever has been. It's an Arts Festival, after all, and even if some of the edges of the show have a bit of a convention feel (here's a panel on an old-timey cartoonist, here's a guy handing out a flyer you don't want, here's a group of fans carrying on a conversation in the middle of an aisle so nobody can get by), MoCCA is the kind of show where Top Shelf and Fantagraphics play the role of the big guns, while young artists show of their wares. There seemed to be less "merch" this year -- fewer tables selling t-shirts with cute or anti-cute iconography -- and more of a focus on comics. Or maybe those are just the tables that caught my interest.

As for the now-not-so-new-location of the festival within the Lexington Avenue Armory? I'm used to it. It lacks the surprise-around-every-corner feel of the Puck Building, but there is something to be said about the convenience of every booth being in the same large room, with plenty of space at the ends for hanging out and talking with friends. I did a lot of that on Saturday, with top-notch comic book minds like Amedeo Tuturro, Sean Witzke, Jared Lewis, Joe McCulloch, Chris Mautner and Tucker Stone. Actually, I didn't get to talk with Joe or Chris at all, really, but they were in the vicinity and next year I'll have to make time to chat them up.

One of the weird things about the people who exhibit at MoCCA, if I may go off on a tangent for a minute, is that even though everyone there is roughly in the "alt comics" or "indie comics" bucket, such a label is basically meaningless as far as identifying what you're likely to find at the show. You can just as easily come across tiny drawings of plants, held together by a single staple, as you can come across a memoir comic about someone's sex life, or a relatively traditional, if shoddily-printed superhero comic that looks like it was drawn over the weekend. And the exhibitors don't seem to know what to do behind their tables, either. Most of them go too far in either extreme, being too hucksterish about their comics (and, no, I'm not impressed by the concept behind anything you have to offer, just show me what it looks like), or completely ignoring anyone who steps up to survey their work.

But all that variety -- of styles, both artistic and interpersonal -- makes the MoCCA Festival what it is and makes these comics, these hand-made, earnest, crafted, raw comics, worth reading. For me, anyway. Because I find myself growing increasingly apathetic toward the impersonal slickness of most mainstream comics.

Ian Betram's "1001"

One of the things I love about comics and it's something I've always loved about the medium, even if I wasn't always honest with myself about it, is that you can see the hand of the artist at work. I mean that literally as much as I mean it metaphorically. In other narrative forms, whether it's drama or film or prose fiction, the reader (or viewer) is distanced from the creative act by the layers of artifice in between. Take prose fiction, for example: the ideas are translated into words by the writer, but then the writers words become mechanical reproductions on the page, enclosed in a package he or she probably had nothing to do with. Or take film, where a writer's words are interpreted by both the director and the actors and there is power of the camera as a storytelling device to overwhelm whatever else may be happening in front of it.

In comics, though, when they're working well, the story and the art are a unified, dynamic expression of a clear idea. The marks on the paper (or on the Cintiq) are reproduced for the reader without unnecessary layers of processing or interpretation or repackaging. In comics, particularly the kinds of comics you find at MoCCA, the creative act is immediately visible. It's pure.

That's the juice of comics, as far as I'm concerned. That's what makes them the primary art and narrative in my life.

So with that in mind, let's take a look at two of the books I bought at MoCCA this year and see what they have to tell us about the state of the art and about the immediacy of marks on paper.

The first book I want to talk about is the first book I purchased at the show. It's a Top Shelf book called "Liar's Kiss," which I had seen an ashcan preview of back at the New York Comic Con in the fall. For all my ranting a minute ago about the hand-made quality of comic books and the appeal of that approach, the "Liar's Kiss" book looks incredibly slickly-produced and potentially impersonal. Yet, it's not. I mean, it IS slick-looking, but that doesn't mean it ends up reading as an impersonal experience, even if it's awash in noir genre conventions.

Or even if it could easily be billed as "What Vertigo Crime Books SHOULD Be."

Because "Liar's Kiss" has the same physicality as the Vertigo Crime books, with its smallish dimensions and hard cover. The interiors have hard black and white artwork, chiseled ink lines by artist Jhomar Soriano. And the story is noir on top of noir, as if a hard-boiled detective were dreaming about a catching a screening of "The Asphault Jungle" while taking a break from a Raymond Chandler read-a-thon. But unlike, say "Noche Roja," the Vertigo Crime graphic novel in which Jason Latour's powerful artwork is reproduced poorly, on paper that only muddies what should have been an excellent-looking book, "Liar's Kiss" looks crisp and sharp and dangerous.

"Liar's Kiss" isn't a perfect book, but, these days, I'm all about the imperfections that bring a work of art to life. Writer Eric Skillman, who not only writes the heck out of genre fiction but also does the design work for most of those Criterion Collection discs that you know and love, doesn't try to hide his intentions here. This isn't a postmodern commentary on detective fiction. No, "Liar's Kiss" is just straight-up noir, with allusions to classical examples of the form embedded in almost every scene. And when it falters, it's not because of its tone (which is consistently smart and appropriately agitated), but because the plot reversals aren't going to elegantly reveal themselves. Skillman has to go into pure exposition mode to make sense out of the story, but that doesn't mean it's without surprises. And heavy exposition in the end has been a hallmark of great writers since the days of Jane Austen. No one says "noir" like writer of "Northanger Abbey."

Eric Skillman and Jhomar Soriano's Liar's Kiss"

Oh and artist Jhomar Soriano does the best Eduardo Risso impression you've ever seen. But it's Eduardo Risso with a bit of Sean Phillips thrown in, so it's okay.

In short, it's a good book -- seriously, far better than any of the Vertigo Crime books and I've liked a couple of those -- and it manages to feel like something produced from the hands of Skillman and Soriano. Their effort is right there, on the page. Immediate and without any artifice beyond their own interest in the artificiality of the genre in which they're working.

But it's not that kind of Top Shelf hardcover that MoCCA is REALLY about, is it? You can get those books at Amazon, probably for less than you can get them from the Top Shelf booth. (Though your copy likely won't have a personalized note from Eric Skillman, telling you to "Enjoy!" the book and, thus, you lose before you've even begun.)

No, what MoCCA is really about is the kind of photocopied, no-budget comics that blow your brain out right through your ears. The photocopied, no-budget kind are easy to get at the show, but the "blow your brain out" versions are decidedly more rare. But if you were at the show and you happened to bump into Ian Bertram, then you would have seen something special.

Bertram, from what I gather, is a junior at the School of Visual Arts and he was selling a few copies of his stapled, photocopied, masking-tape-down-the-spine thesis comic. Usually, when someone asks, "hey, do you want to buy a copy of my thesis?" the answer is simple: you just pretend they didn't say anything, because who the hell would want to buy anyone's thesis, ever? We all know that whether your thesis is a comic or a research paper on the ethical considerations of Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure," it's probably going to be a thing that no one really wants to read, including the poor guy who pretends to be your "advisor."

Ian Bertram's "1001" isn't anything like that. Not only is it actually good, it's actually great. It was the strongest 17 pages of artwork at the entire show, period. The story doesn't have a whole lot of substance -- it's a sci-fi retelling of a small corner of the "Arabian Nights," -- but it has powerful imagery, a twist ending and the best drawing you've seen in a while. Bertram goes full Moebius for most of the pages, except when he cuts back to the framing story, where the Sienkiewicz-from-"Dune" influence shines through the Steve Leialoha rendering.

I don't want to overpraise Bertram too much, because he's just getting started on his comics career and I expect that he still has room to improve, but he is, frankly, an astonishing talent and I treasure this first work of his, masking tape and all and this is what I said to him at MoCCA, "I will buy everything you do for the rest of your career." I certainly meant it.

Yeah, that's what MoCCA is about. The future.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen regularly at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

Follow Tim on Twitter: TimCallahan

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TAGS:  when words collide, mocca, moccafest, ian bertram, 1001, liar's kiss

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