Minis Monday: Snake Oil #1-2

Posted by on April 26th, 2010 at 1:00 PM

Miiiiiiiiiin-ni comics
Where the work’s fine and the books are cheap,
Where we sit and read and pay no heed
To the economics of the trade!

Awww, sing it!

Snake Oil #1-#2
Chuck Forsman

I have this romantic notion that minicomics, as well as their handcrafted and small-batch brethren, are like funnybook cottage industries, artistic labs where creative ideas are given shape, then road-tested, put through their paces and refined, if not exactly through trial-and-error, then by trial-and-enhancement or trial-and-realignment. I imagine them as in-house proving grounds of relative freedom and latitude. The first two issues of Chuck Forsman’s Snake Oil seem to do a good job of exploiting such an environment and then presenting the results to a waiting world.

Forsman has a broad and open drawing style. It’s unfussy but immanently functional and can be counted upon to render a flourish to effect. As far as mating story-telling technique to visual sensation, he’s adventurous, willing to attempt — I suppose I mean “risk” — a great deal. When he succeeds he does so very much on his own terms (I’m thinking here of the kidnappers with bison heads).

He’s good at using pacing as a tool applicable to a number of tasks from organization to mood reinforcement. Whether slow (to bring out the prolonged discomfort in awkward interactions) or fast (to herd the largely borderless parade of disjointed sights to an abrupt rendezvous with a punch line), tempo supplies an added dimension.

Each issue of Snake Oil features two parts. First comes an interrelated cluster of sections in a continuing tale. This is followed by a concluding stand-alone short story. The longer, more involved narrative has those kidnapping bison as well as a supercharged smoking pipe, alien locales, a naked kid up a tree who’s suspicious of rag-wearers, an evil, wizardy-kinda guy and a room packed with domestic cats. There’s oddness to spare, all right, with Forsman’s “special effects” weirdness particularly well orchestrated: In long form, there’s a growing sense of unease as the cats amass over panels and pages; for a quick start, see the naked kid saying something’s wrong at his uncle’s smoke farm and the subsequent full-page pair of panels that reveals just how wrong.

But this long story also deals with a busted romance, friendships of several stripes, garbage men in a diner, laughing policemen, and a loving couple delivering bad news. These provide the “real world” anchor to the splintering curiosities unfolding the page before and after. The tense, porous, unequal co-existence between the normal and the exceptional provides quite a bit of the engaging mystery and sustained attraction.

Yet the short stories ending each issue are better. In issue #1, a terrible misfortune befalls a schlub who, under certain circumstances or in certain panels, is a bird. Maybe. In issue #2, a woman and her talking dog face an astonishing visual anomaly that they fear signals the end of their world. Maybe. One hopes not. And that right there may be the most crucial distinction between Forsman’s greater and lesser accomplishments in Snake Oil: a more intuitively engaging set of characters and situations that offers greater opportunity for identification, empathy and involvement.

Issue #2 completes Forsman’s thesis requirement for the Center for Cartoon Studies, another funnybooks laboratory of sorts. It’s hard not to wonder what happens after the lab coats come off.

images ©2008 Chuck Forsman

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