Ireland's small press scene is slowly starting to develop some exciting voices. Let's take a quick look at some work sent by prominent underground cartoonists, starting with an interesting new anthology.
Stray Lines, edited by Paddy Lynch. This is a lean, (64 pages) attractive anthology featuring five long-form pieces by six artists. The anthology clearly goes out of its way to showcase a number of different storytelling styles. For example, Gus Hughes' "Animals Attacking Their Own Reflections" is rendered like a series of cave drawings: dark, crude and primal. The story is a bit of dark-humored nonsense, as a documentarian looking for a particular kind of tarantula is double-crossed by his native guide. Absurdly, the guide fulfills his desire to judge a dance competition, and the bite of the spider just so happens to induce dance-like spasms. The sequence where the man is dancing is topped only by a disco ball emerging out of nowhere. By contrast, Philip Barrett's "Endless Lap" is downright conventional-looking by way of comparison, as it depicts a man and a woman oddly appearing in each other's nautical dreams, trying to find their way to each other without knowing who they're looking for. It's a beautifully told story that manages to downplay its schamltz by focusing on the everyday.
Andrew & Chris Judge's "The Aviator" is about a young man growing up in America in the 1930s with a talent for drawing and painting signs.That talent led him to design and paint logos and illustrations for the front of US planes. The most famous plane from World War II also bore his art, in a sequence whose outcome was fairly obvious the moment the secretive machinations surrounding it began. The Judges get around that inevitability by starting the story toward the end and then flashing back to the illustrator's beginnings. Chris Judge, who drew the figures, seems strongly influenced by Jason Lutes' detailed and roundish character design, with a hint of Gilbert Hernandez thrown in to soften things up a bit. Lynch's "Friendly, Local" is an excellent slice-of-life story about a shiftless young man on the make with a young woman at a Chinese take-out restaurant who also has to young son and a demanding ex. It's a perfect portrait of someone who is put in a position of responsibility who is desperate to get out of it, or rather, go back in time to when he had no responsibilities as a means of comfort and retarding the march of time. Lynch's scratchy, muddy line is perfectly suited to tell this sort of story, especially the climactic moment when the young man's attempt at seducing the woman fails in an amusingly spectacular fashion. Finally, Barry Hughes' angular and cartoony "The Glass Trampoline" is yet another visual left turn, as it depicts a sort of spirit quest undertaken in order to get a bucket of chicken. Like the first story in the book, its unusual visual approach was in the service of a cheeky, absurd premise. This is certainly a solid intro to the sensibilities of the Irish comics scene: darkly humorous, soulful, and introspective.
Patrick Lynch's In The Aquarium is a meditation on madness, obsession and escape. A man in an aquarium stares at a fish that seems to be talking to him, leading him into a reverie where that conversation follows him around until he goes mad and strikes a co-worker. Then he's led into a reality where it's really him in the fish tank, drowning and on display, until the glass is smashed and his world ends. The jumbled panel arrangement reflects the chaos in the man's mind, as do the wavy and sketchy lines. It's a short, but effective glimpse at the ways in which even the worst of fantastical fates can be better than the grim reality of everyday life.
John Robbins' early comics, Negotiating The Beast and The Monkey-Head Complaint, are dark to the point of nihilism. The former is a series of one-page stories that revolve around the darker aspects of childhood, both in terms of the weird and frequently horrible things children do each other and the ways in which predators lurk. He also adapts some of the stranger and more desperate letters from a local advice column. There's a comical and cynical distance implied in these stories (like certain EC or Vertigo comics), but the problem with them is that they are incredibly overwritten. The narrative captions threaten to drown out the comics entirely, pushing the frequently arresting and spare graphics into the background. Robbins did show an interesting facility for working with negative space, especially with regard to how he used blacks and shadow. to highlight dread. The Monkey-Head Complaint sees Robbins expanding the ideas from that first comic into a single storyline about a bored couple and how they inadvertently get involved with a young man who slowly descends into homicidal madness. There are some odd storytelling choices, like the wife demanding that the husband tell his story about how he met the young man in a sort of Shakespearean cadence, but they tended to add to the slightly fantastical nature of the story. Like his earlier work, Robbins went to the EC Comics twist ending with the most horrible outcome possible, which felt a bit hackneyed. Robbins' later work is far more nuanced and restrained, but one can see how Robbins' strong visual storytelling sense was already in place in his earlier work.