As we move towards the transition months; out of the climatological frying pan that is mid-August and into the lukewarm buffet tray of the fall, it seems appropriate that today’s comics are about changes.
First up is Scorched Earth by Josh Kramer. As with some previous comics, this one warrants the disclaimer that I know Josh and think very highly of him. If this were the Victorian Era, I’d harrumph approvingly at his mention in complaints about the poor and the street urchins caught in my carriage wheels. Therefor, though I’ll try my level best to be objective, I do come in with a bias. Adding to that bias is my familiarity to the subject matter of this comic. Scorched Earth is a reportage comic, not unlike the work of Joe Sacco or Dan Archer. It recounts the “Great Strip-club Fire of Aught-five” in White River Junction, Vermont. I attended grad school in there just a year after the events of Kramer’s comic, and the fire continued to be the topic of conversation for many years. Surprising, considering the bustling metropolis that is White River Junction. They have a coffee shop now, for example. I kid. I kid. They also have despair.
Aaaanyway, Josh Kramer’s comic is an in-depth look at the events surrounding the strip-club fire, with interviews with many of the towns mover’s and shakers. And all snark aside, this is a genuinely interesting story; particularly how it reveals more about the subjects being interviewed than those subjects perhaps intended. It’s a compelling look at small-town gossip from the dispassionate perspective of an outsider. Unlike Sacco, Josh keeps himself out of the comic; this is straightforward reportage. The downside to this approach is that I found myself wanting an anchor to empathize with. There are several recurring interviewees, but they don’t appear enough to become a through-line perspective. The advantage of Sacco’s approach is that he allows himself to become an everyman fish-out-of-water for the reader to experience the reporting from the perspective of. The danger (apart from the dangerous dangle of my participles) is that the cartoonist could take the focus off of the story; something Sacco avoids by depicting himself as an eyeless blank slate. I’d be interested to see Kramer try to work himself into a future reporting comic in a similar fashion, though I enjoyed this book all the same.
Next we have Southern Fried 9, by Jerry Smith. This is an autobiographical comic about the author’s experience living and raising a family in the South. The stories are very frank, sometimes at the expense of the author. Indeed the comic as a whole has a raw quality to it, from the subject matter to the production to some of the artwork. The results are hit or miss. Some stories peter out after a strong start. Other’s suffer from awkward, difficult to follow scene transitions (complicated by the author’s drawing style wherein faces tend to resemble each other). In addition, there were several spelling errors and grammatical issues. This series can be great if the artist would only spent a bit more time on issues of clarity. As it is, the books feels rushed.
My favorite story, which comprises the second half of the book, was “The Glam 80s.” In it Smith recounts his experience working at a plant back when “rock stars looked like women and women looked like Pat Benatar.” This story is a good example of the rapid-fire transitions that are the stock and trade of this book. Smith begins talking about all-night gaming sessions, then moves on to music and his pot-head friends, before diving into an engrossing story about his friend Chuck and Chuck’s emotionally abusive wife. The dynamics of this relationship are fascinating and sad; it was so engaging that I wanted this story to be the subject of it’s own, longer comic. Instead, the comic again changes direction to discuss a lonely music-fan named Clint that the author had befriended. Smith’s comics are most successful when he let’s his stories breath. “The Glam 80s” is successful, despite a cruder drawing style then the rest of the book, because the stories of Chuck and Clint have that breathing room. Indeed, both stories would work well on their own and expanded upon. I’m curious to read more work by Jerry Smith. I find the perspective he’s writing from to be an interesting one, and when he takes his time, he’s capable of creating some wonderful narratives.
Morgan Pielli is the author of Indestructible Universe Quarterly