Friday, May 1, 2009

Comics Artists Share a Silent Mixtape


I was never particularly good at putting together mix tapes. Although I lugged my CD/cassette player all through boarding school, I only compiled a meager handful of mix tapes and they were all on the fairly awful side -- strange mixtures of Pearl Jam, show tunes, Alanis, The Beatles, and far too much They Might Be Giants.

I didn't know then what I know now -- in an era where hand-labeled cassettes have been replaced with Muxtape and blip.fm. A mixtape is more than a random assemblage of songs we may have liked at some point in time; it's something to be shared, something we can use to teach others (or later versions of ourselves) about who we are, what appeals to us, and how music informs our view of the world.

Side B, the latest comics anthology from Poseur Ink (publishers of the similarly themed Side A as well as I Saw You... Comics Inspired by Real-Life Missed Connections), is a different brand of mixtape. Instead of an audio recording of favorite songs, we get to see how writers and artists interpret and share their musical experiences through the silent medium of comics. It's a rare opportunity not only to learn about new musical artists but visual artists as well -- and to experience various musical genres through a wide array of narrative and visual styles.

The best mix tapes include a few familiar artists even as they introduce you to a host of new favorites, and Side B offers a nice assortment of independent creators. Ryan Kelly, illustrator for Vertigo's Lucifer series and Oni Press's Local, lends his considerable artistic talents to a punk rock vignette authored by his partner Kat Vapid. Jeffrey Brown of Clumsy and Bighead fame has a love connection with Cat Power. Lucy Knisley, whose travelogue French Milk was published this past fall (and the film rights have already been optioned), draws the instrumental cover and describes the emotional fallout of losing her entire digital music collection. And Bellen! creator Box Brown shares an excerpt from his upcoming book Love is a Peculiar Type of Thing. But there are plenty of artists who I'm seeing for the first time and whose other work I'm raring to hunt down.

Unsurprisingly, the strongest works from Side B are the most specific, where the artist uses music to explore some other aspect of their lives. In "Out of Step," John Isaacson reminisces on love of Minor Threat and experiences with the straightedge subculture. In "Pursue It," Cordus Holdemauer questions visual artists' celebration of minimalist and conceptual art in the face of music's relative rigor and conformation to certain standards. And, in "Redemption Day" -- one of my favorite entries -- Cristy C. Road explains how punk rock -- and Green Day in particular -- fueled her self-acceptance as a self-loathing, bisexual adolescent.

But some contributors just want to share their formative musical experiences as best they can. Jim Mahfood writes a tribute to Gary Wilson that has admittedly piqued my curiosity about the cult figure's music. Colleen Frakes takes us inside one of Portland performance artist Jason Webley's annual Halloween "death" shows, which create a sense of magical and ritual. Dave Crosland sets his visually striking non-relationship story against the backdrop of a Modest Mouse concert, using music as the frame rather than the centerpiece.

But there are misses amongst this hit parade. The playful art in Brian Butler's "Where Do Shows Come From?" is overwhelmed by its flat text, and the poorly translated script in Uriel Duran's already thin "Life is a Mixtape" is left, for reasons I can't fathom, untouched by editorial hands. And a few of the tracks are wholly unmemorable -- attempting to key into the mystical aspects of music, or the isolation of donning headphones, or the appeal of a really good breakup song without adding anything personal or unique to the mix.

And even with a largely solid track listing, Side B doesn't quite come together as a mix tape. Too many contributors take too similar an approach to the challenge, offering monologues on their personal musical histories. The book is so packed with these and adjacent brands of narration (such as apostrophes and musing dialogues) that the occasional outliers (a ghost tale told in off-meter rhyme, a wordless prehistoric love story, a road trip turned hallucinatory) feel like interlopers from some other kind of anthology -- like a tape of alt rock songs inexplicably punctuated with show tunes and strands of acid jazz. It's a shame, because perhaps the most successful piece in the whole lot is Jon Sperry's magnificent and surprising "Litterboxx," a text-free work that reads as a hyperactive music video and shows just how far the idea of comics and music can be pushed. A quick flip through Side B reveals a rich assortment of visual styles, and ideally the storytelling would be just as diverse.

Poseur Ink editors Rachel Dukes and Mike Lopez have attracted some immensely talented creators, and -- even among the misses -- watching them flex their artistic muscles is well worth the price of admission. You may not come out of it with a keener understanding of what's possible at the intersection of music and comics, but chances are you'll find plenty of new artists to love with thick back catalogues to explore. And really, when we get a new mixtape, isn't that what we always hope for?

Side B is available June 3rd.

[Side B]

4 comments:

Jon Sperry said...

Thanks for the kind mention!

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