Saturday, May 23, 2009

Karaoke Comic Still Searching for Its Voice


Reviewing a single-issue comic is a bit of an odd endeavor. It's like contemplating how someone would be in a relationship after sharing appetizers. And, in the cast of a six page DIY, it's a super quick nosh -- more mozzarella sticks than the pu pu platter. But Russ Kazmierczak Jr was kind enough to send me the first issue of his Karaoke Comics, so I am happy to review it.

The premise of Karaoke Comics is fairly self-explanatory. Kazmierczak chronicles his adventures (and misadventures) in karaoke. You see, Kazmierczak is a self-described karaoke fanboy (in the amusing introduction he explains his possible origins: "Rocketed to Earth from the doomed Planted K'raoke! Acquired karaoke powers when bitten by a radioactive Michael Bolton CD!"). He's the guy who doesn't need a liter of tequila to bust out a Whitney Houston tune, the guy who will sing along when someone has a really awesome solo going. Hell, he's the guy if you ask what he wants to do tonight, he'll say, without a moment's hesitation, "I know this great karaoke place."

It's a nice anchor for a comic, precisely because most of us don't share Kazmierczak's enthusiasm for crooning. I'm personally a bit mystified by people who step off the stage only to race back to the song menu, and I'd like to know what mystical force keeps them coming back to the mic. Plus, it lends itself to a rotating cast characters: fellow karaoke bar hoppers, the friends who tag along for the booze, regulars at certain hot spots. And after reading Side B, I'm intrigued by projects that explore music in the necessarily silent medium of comics.

But while Kazmierczak may have a decent idea (and one that aptly matches his passions), he's not quite sure what to do with it. This first issue, entitled "A Gay Old Time!" (much to my disappointment; a cheesier portion of my brain hoped the comics would all be named for grand karaoke standards), consists of two three-page anecdotes in which Kazmierczak (who is straight) goes to karaoke bars and is subsequently hit on by other men. The first, "Sideburned," is far too slight, even for a tale told to friends over beers, while the second, "Daydream Disbelief," is genuinely weird, while containing undertones of sympathetic sadness. The problem, though, is less in the choice of stories than the execution; they told in a way that is almost ludicrously straightforward, without any concern for texture or pacing.

Case in point: the latter (and stronger) of the two stories ought to be seat-squirmingly uncomfortable. As much as we should feel bad for the agent of our discomfort, we should (male or female, gay or straight) also pray that we never have the displeasure of meeting this fellow in the restroom. But where I expect Kazmierczak to linger -- and even luxuriate -- over the man's loneliness and his rather egregious breech of urinal etiquette, he wedges the entire experience into a single panel and then immediately skips back to his comfy table. Similarly, a sense of character and place are strangely absent from the telling. The stories are set in two separate karaoke bars: Orange County's Angels and Lamplighter in San Diego, but we get no idea as to what distinguishes one from the other. And there is maybe one line of dialogue that doesn't contribute deliberately to the central anecdote, revealing virtually nothing about the characters. Sure, we get a clear sense of what transpired in these particular narratives, but not what could be in store for us in future episodes, a circumstance that leads me to strongly suspect that slice-of-life, not comedic anecdotes, would be a stronger genre for this particular comic.

The artwork presents a similar issue. To my mind, karaoke by its nature has an exagerated quality to it; some people are being silly, others are forgetting how the song goes, still others are belting out pop tunes like it's a Broadway audition. But Kazmierczak's art, while highly functional, is bizarrely conservative, showing off not one color of his personal freak flag. It also fails to fill in the blanks left by the text -- characters' age, attractiveness, and sense of style remain a mystery. And seriously, how gross was that thing in the bathroom? Inquiring eyes want to know.

The pair of graphic anecdotes are broken up by two pages of text, a venue review for San Francisco song spot The Mint. The review shares the rest of the issue's theme (namely, that Kazmierczak is a tad obsessed with the sexual orientations of his fellow songsters), but it gives Karaoke Comics a nice bump from simple comic to zine, and I could see fellow karaoke fans submitting reviews of their own.

A good karaoke performance is about more than reciting the correct lyrics to the proper tune; it's about interpreting the song in your own way, even if you aren't the world's greatest singer. The same goes for comics; a unique personality and a strong sense of flair and fun beat an amusing anecdote any day of the week. I'm sure that Russ Kazmierczak has a great voice when he gets up on stage. Next time, I'd like to see it on paper.

[Russ Kazmierczak's Blog]
[Karaoke Comics Preview]

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