Short Takes On Gag Comics

Posted by on December 11th, 2010 at 6:16 AM

Rob offers short takes on a number of funny minicomics.  Included are Fight Scene, by Eric Knisley; Who is Amy Amoeba?, by Jason Viola; Ninjas In The Breakroom, by Leah Riley; Yo! Burbalino #5 & #6, by Greg Farrell; Kevin, by Max Huffman; Cheep Bilds Whith Blocks, (sic) by Yana Levy; The Regular Man #13-14, by Dina Kelberman; and Cartoon Flophouse Presents Greenblatt The Great! #3, by Michael Aushkenker.

At the risk of killing the golden goose, let’s take a look at several short gag minicomics of varying sizes and zero in on what each artist is doing to create humor.  Minicomics are a perfect vehicle for gag work, as it’s a quick and disposable way of appealing to a new reader.  Creating a memorable set of jokes is perhaps one of the most difficult things an artist can do, however.

Take the quartet of artists I spoke to at the local minicomics event at Chapel Hill Comics a few months ago.  Eric Knisley has been cartooning for years, with his Mickey Death being his best-known work.  His 24-hour comic Fight Scene builds its humor by subverting familiar tropes.  A fight between a science-based hero and a magic-based villain proceeds in the expected histrionic manner until a throwaway line by the hero is interpreted as a racial slur by the villain, who is a person of color.  The comic then turns from the titular fight scene to several scenes worth of awkward exchanges.  Knisley backs up his gag visually with appropriately colorful character design to keep the reader immersed in the expected story, which further makes the unexpected turn all the more effective.

Leah Riley’s 4-page mini Ninjas In The Breakroom is the epitome of “modest effort”, building its punchline on its title.  The reasons she comes up with for ninjas being in a break room are far less important than the image itself, which is mildly amusing.  Nine-year-old cartoonist Yana Levy’s Cheep mini uses the time-tested method of establishing a character’s hubris and then punishing him for, pricking the balloon of ego…until the character shows that he’s learned nothing.  While her rendering style is obviously primitive, she’s moving in the right direction in that she keeps her pages very simple and uncluttered.

Teenage cartoonist Max Huffman shows enormous promise as a humorist, and his gags in Kevin are primarily built on timing and dialogue.  His line is spare but reasonably effective, but this is one instance where adding a bit more complexity or flair to his line could make some of his jokes even funnier.  At the moment, his drawings convey just enough information to the reader to make the jokes funny but lack the distinctive style that great humorists possess.  Still, it’s remarkable how sharp and cruel his dialogue is as he documents (through events both absurd and all too real) his character’s navigation of the soul-crushing endeavor that is high school.

Turning to other comics, Greg Farrell’s Yo! Burbalino minis show a relentless commitment to his cast of characters no matter the nature of the story, but many of his stories feel cluttered in a way that’s distracting.  One almost senses that he expects his reader to have as much affection for his characters as he does, and that sense of self-indulgence really sets in with his poetry comics.  On the other hand, his grim but hilarious autobiographical stories from his childhood have a startling clarity to them that shows his potential as a humorist.

Speaking of potential, I’ve found much of Jason Viola’s gag work to be competent and attractive but somewhat rote and nondescript.  However, Who Is Amy Amoeba? works wonderfully because of his commitment to his premise and the simplicity of its execution.  Viola never strays from the joke of an amoeba constantly reproducing as he constructs an increasingly-elaborate scenario involving civil war and religious conflict.  The fourth issue of Michael Aushenker’s Cartoon Flophouse Featuring Greenblatt The Great! similarly starts with a simple concept (a wacky bellhop) and escalates the heights of absurdity from strip to strip, from charming a hitman out to get him to making friends with Flat Tyler, a guy consisting solely of a cap and shoes.  This issue represents the best of his recent work, as Aushenker used a simpler and more spontaneous line; indeed, his single-page relationship gag strip, “The Other Fish In The Sea”, looks like it could have been ripped from a “men’s magazine” from the 1950s.  Finally, the two recent issues of Dina Kelberman’s The Regular Man are funny because of Kelberman’s ability to create an entirely new visual language, one where text, color and image bleed into each other in dizzying ways while still furthering a narrative that veers between misanthropic and pathetically  lonely, mining laughs from that desperation.

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