A Thousand Sorrows and a Labyrinth

Ogner Stump's 23rd Sorrow: FloorsComics for review are like buses: months go by without your being offered one, and then two come along together! On this occasion, the convoy of two, in a very elegant black and white livery, consisted of Andrew Goldfarb's Ogner Stump's One Thousand Sorrows (Wonderella printed) and Geoffrey Hawley's Nepotism (from Spleenland Productions). And, just to hammer the bus analogy into the ground (or, drive it into the depot), both were double deckers. Which is to say, in less elaborate terms, that not only are both books anthology titles (that is, they contain a number of short narratives), they also have in common that each book consists of two sections...

Setting aside, for the moment, this game of reflections and symmetries: with Ogner Stump's One Thousand Sorrows, Andrew Goldfarb has hit on an ingenious excuse for handling any material he likes, at any length, while maintaining a semblance of unity. All he needs to do is choose an element of his material to label as one of the eponymous Sorrows. So Ogner's first sorrow is Guests, and for six pages and most of a seventh, he suffers as his uninvited guests devour his furniture and besiege him with verbiage:

"A pre-fab start-up dividend consortium, protecting our overseas interests by martial management. A thorough perusal of share-ware rolodexes reveal top-heavy construction reunification... Coagulating data dissolution indicates a trend toward keypunch hi-flake "power-flop" mergering. Furthermore, and moreover so..."
Ogner Stump's Second Sorrow: EggsOn the seventh and final page of this episode, sorrow gives way to action - and then, at the bottom of the page, the second sorrow is tucked in - a wordless one-liner, a complete contrast with what has gone before.

A clever trick; and it works. Andrew Goldfarb deploys an idiosyncratic imagination, in dreaming up the horrors which might beset his hero. "Floors", for example, are a flimsy protection from the wildly exaggerated horrors below - the inspiration here seems purely visual, the nightmare monsters stretching up through the elongated panel in a very satisfying way, while a tiny Ogner cowers on the floating planking, so lacking in solidity that it is not even anchored within the panel boundaries. "Employment" has some semblance of narrative logic, and a more satirical flavour, as Ogner is driven by poverty to grasp such "Employment Opportunities" as

"Ground Inspector needed: must be sentient, perpendicular, with own breathing apparatus."
Ogner Stump's Fourth Sorrow: Employment"Why," he exclaims, "this looks perfect!". It isn't, of course, and he moves on to become a systems administrator among the endless vistas of cubicles of Dilbertland. But in between these two episodes of social commentary sits Ogner's stint of employment as an ape transporter, which must surely have grown from the sheer joy of the image of Ogner attempting to transport a large and inscrutable ape. Similarly, "Space" provides a home for a magnificently baroque spaceship, and "Switzerland" for some old-fashioned engravings.

Andrew Goldfarb has been compared to a number of artists, from Charles Burns to Edward Gorey, and echoes of these and others can be seen in his work; indeed, I'd add another: the wildly sketched invention of "Islands" reminded me of Fred, and his descriptions of Philémon's adventures on the A of "Atlantic Ocean". Yet from this wealth of anarchic invention, there emerges a sense of genuine coherence, a unity of vision and line which is pure Goldfarb.

It is in the diverse materials of the book's second section (originally published as A. Goldfarb Comix & Stories) that the reminiscences of other creators become more striking. Dig Up Her Bones is classic EC creepy, The Truffle Tree and Floating Head have all the narrative coherence of the Brothers Grimm retold by Dame Darcy (who offers the endorsement "You're so demented."), but all are transformed by Goldfarb's luscious black and white line into something rich, strange and independent of these forebears. Only the collaboration Mumbletoes (words by J. Andrijeski) really doesn't come off. Increased in size and published in full colour, it would probably make an agreeable (if rather sub-Seuss) picture book, but as a series of line drawings following much more distinctive material, it has the air of a make-weight, an anticlimax of an ending to a book that began on a very high note indeed.

Nepotism is a visually even more varied affair. As publisher, editor and writer, Geoffrey Hawley brings in three other artists to illustrate three of his stories, and those three artists, he explains, just happen to be his brother and his two oldest friends - hence the self-deprecating title. In fact, the choice of collaborators needs no excusing: in particular, Janet Alexander's art deco illustrations make the (almost) wordless The Question into something special, a sort of monochrome rendition of Clarice Cliffe's vividly-coloured designs.

A panel from The Question
The narrative is little more than a shaggy-dog story, but with the haunting charm of a picture book loved in childhood and since lost. The art of Fought Over also has antecedents in childhood reading, in such "improving" (i.e. educational and sanitised) comics as Look and Learn: it's proficient but static, and fails to distract the reader from the fact that this, too, is a shaggy-dog story. This anecdotal structure, in which an accumulation of detail serves only to defer the over-neat clincher, is one of the besetting temptations of the short-short story, suitable for an anthology of this kind; another is to leave the story not so much open-ended as incomplete: The Birthday Boy is an intriguing fragment, with its hommage to Little Nemo, but if there is a story to tell here, it is worth telling at greater length. As it stands, the dream sequence is sufficiently "realistic" (that is, its relationship to the dreamer's waking life is sufficiently transparent) to direct the reader's interest away from the dream itself; yet the boy's waking life is so heightened and unreal that it cannot absorb that redirected interest. Is this too much to ask of a five-page comic strip? Possibly, but "I want to know more!" is not an entirely unfavourable reaction. There is some real talent in this showcase, but the material has not quite developed its own voice.

Flip the comic over, and instead of Nepotism the cover reads: The Labyrinth: A Tale of Jorge Luis Borges. Reading this way, the comic is a single strip, written and drawn by Geoffrey Hawley for SPX 2002, the Small Press Expo anthology. Hawley was inspired by the anthology's biographical theme to produce a tribute to Jorge Luis Borges, and his enthusiasm for his subject makes the resulting comic more substantial than the other pieces in the collection.

Jorge Luis Borges meets himself in the labyrinth
The drawing is pared down, but the apparently simple stick men are in fact highly expressive. The action asks little more of them than to act as "talking heads", but the three ages of Borges each have their own posture, their own facial expressions and their own emotions. The success of this strip is self-limiting; that is, success is defined not as the reader wanting more of the same, but as the reader going on to read something else - Borges's Labyrinths, say.

But the adoption of the labyrinth as a visual framework for the information is suited both to the subject and to the material. Given Hawley's remark that:

Borges had a great fear of being replicated leading to a lifelong distrust of (if not revulsion towards) mirrors. I tried to work it in but it just didn't happen.
there is a pleasant twist in his decision to republish the strip in this two-faced edition - and for that matter in the coincidence of it arriving on my desk at the same time as Ogner Stump. But this is where I got on...

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