Kent Worcester reviews Fortune Cookies by Sue Rice and Nick Thorkelson

Posted by on January 24th, 2010 at 3:06 PM

Fortune Cookies: New Comics about Journeys and Transformations. Sue Rice and Nick Thorkelson, eds. Forty-eight b&w pages; saddlestitch binding; $4.50. No ISBN. To order copies visit nickthorkelson.com.

This self-published anthology features eleven graphic stories, most of which are autobiographical in nature. It has a genial, laid-back quality that suggests a few friends got together and made their own comic. Apart from the editors, the contributors are Jen Flores and tcj‘s own Leonard Rifas. Six of the stories are by Thorkelson, three are by Rice, and Flores and Rifas contribute one each. I may be mistaken, but I suspect the contributors are all old hippies. Most of the stories are set in the 1960s or 1970s, and there is a “when we were young” vibe to the collection. However, there is sufficient irony, humor, and self-awareness on hand to keep the project from straying too far in the direction of unfiltered nostalgia.

In their introduction, the editors say that “when we decided to call this collection ‘Fortune Cookies’, we were thinking along the lines of all those intrepid folk heroes like Puss ‘n’ Boots or Jack & the Beanstalk, recklessly ‘seeking their fortunes’ whatever that may entail…we understood that we had to leave our various comfort zones if we were going to find whatever freedom or pleasure or revelation was out there for us.” For this reason, the main characters often come across as works-in-progress. By way of car rides, bus trips, mental reveries, and cross-country relocations, the protagonists shake off their blinders and experience the world in a fresh light.

The longest story is Nick Thorkelson’s “A Better World is Possible,” which is itself an excerpt from an as yet unfinished autobiographical comic that depicts the real-life adventures of a struggling artist/musician who moves from Madison, Wisconsin to the Bay Area at the end of the sixties. Thorkelson’s linework has an appealing, cartoony style that nicely suits his gentle authorial voice. As his friend Stephen Stills assures him (yes, that Stephen Stills), the Bay Area in the late sixties was the place to be – “explosively creative, man!” But as we learn, utopia has its complications, and moving west does not solve all of life’s problems. The younger Thorkelson has to somehow find a job, and a place to live, while still pursuing music and art. He has a girlfriend, Beth, who is not entirely convinced by the countercultural scene, and band mates who tussle over every note. He also plunges into the murky waters of the New Left, joining a loosely organized publishing cooperative while hanging out with friends who are attached to various lefty causes. As the following page suggests, Thorkelson didn’t always know how to juggle the competing demands placed on an activist/artist:

Leonard Rifas is similarly known for fusing art, cartooning, and political activism, but in the two-page story reprinted here, “My Earliest Memories,” he emphasizes the crucial role that toy dolls, rubber stamps, and comic strip characters played in his early development. “I loved hearing Perry Como sing on television,” he recalls, and “at the Buster Brown shoe store, the clerk x-rayed my feet to assure a good fit, and gave me a small comic and toy.” Weirdly enough, until I started delving into comic strip history I had always assumed that my own Buster Brown-related memories were fanciful. In any event, the page that opens this post is from Rifas’ two-pager, but unfortunately the version that appears in Fortune Cookies is in black-and-white – the color version (taken from Thorkelson’s website) is rather more impressive.

The following page is taken from Sue Rice’s “Theatre on Wheels,” which if anything is even more cartoony than Thorkelson’s “A Better World is Possible.” Her characters are a little sketchy but they cavort like extras in a Tex Avery film:

Jen Flores also favors a somewhat relaxed, loose line but her approach to visual storytelling is a little spacier than Rice’s. Hers is a journey into the mind rather than a comedy of manners:

My favorite story appears on the back cover, and is by Thorkelson. Titled “Flemmy Harrumphs Pays a Visit to the Old Man,” it uses five borderless panels to capture the ways in which even the most senile of parents can undermine their children. “Was that Frank and Luke that came by last night?” asks the old man. “Frank’s been dead for years. Luke lives in Alaska,” replies Flemmy, whose head consists of a paper bag with a spring where the neck should go. “Yeah, yeah,” retorts the dad. “It’s easy to see you’ll never amount to anything.” This would be painful if it weren’t so funny. Thorkelson excels at the single-page strip, and the way his character’s head pops (“Boing!”) when his father issues his oddball pronouncements should yield an appreciative chuckle from most readers. Unless I am mistaken, the moral of this particular story is that home is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Fortune Cookies may not set the world on fire, but it is nevertheless a highly credible effort from folks whose work deserves a higher profile in the comics subculture. I hope we don’t have to wait too long to see Thorkelson’s sixties memoir in a proper graphic novel format.

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