Friday, December 12, 2008

Back Matter re-runs #2 (Earth Minds are Weak #7)

Here's the second installment in my look back at how I started writing about comics. I'd been reviewing and recommending independent comics for a number of months at the now-defunct website, Independent Propaganda, and after my first trip to Bethesda, Maryland for the Small Press Expo, I came back jazzed about all the mini-comics I got at the show, excited about the new possiblities for the medium that were now open to me.

I decided to showcase many of the best books I took away from SPX and also included short interviews with the creators (short being a key component of email interviews that I learned from interviewing Antony Johnston, writer of Oni's Wasteland as well as many Alan Moore adaptations for Avatar Press - for IndyProp). This format would be what eventually morphed into For Your Consideration, my regular column (hopefully starting back up next Friday) on small press and web comics for the Pulse. Enjoy


This year’s Small Press Expo (this would have been in fall 2006 - chris) was alive with creativity. The variety of books, storytelling techniques, art styles, genres, and formats on display was remarkable. I enjoy good stories, irrespective of genre or format, and I love the excitement that accompanies the discovery of something new such as Justin Fox’s comic EARTH MINDS ARE WEAK. His comics come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and the two issues he had on display consisted of three mini-comics each wrapped around a common theme, and even within each issue the books’ dimensions varied. The one I picked up at the show, issue 7, came in a 9 inch by 6 inch brown envelope with a front and back cover image drawn by Fox. Within the envelope were the 3 minis: “Remember” (8pp., color, 8.5”x5.5”), “The Game” (18pp., black and white, 8.5”x5.5”), and “I am God.” (8pp., 2-color, 5.5”x4.25”). The different format caught my eye, and the price for the issue, only two bucks, reeled me in.

The three mini comics comprising EARTH MINDS ARE WEAK #7 all come from a very similar place while telling three completely different stories. First and foremost, the thematic binding of memory runs through all three tales. In his narratives, Fox asks complex questions that lack any easy answers. What does memory mean? What can it do for us? What heartbreak follows from those painful memories that brand themselves onto our psyche? In reading these comics it became obvious to me that memory, the phenomenon of memory, is something I take for granted. Fox drew me into his world and had me examining memory more closely, engaging me in a philosophical dialogue through his work.

Something else prominent in each story is the invitation of the reader into the narrative. The characters break down the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the audience, making them a part of the drama that is unfolding on the page. Readers enjoy a personal investment in the books and this technique imbues these stories with a substantiality and realness that is often nowhere to be found in the traditional monthlies pumped out by DC and Marvel.

Well suited to the stories being told, Fox’s artwork is clear and understated, allowing the stories to breathe. He uses very few brush strokes and his fluid lines give a life and energy to his characters that might be lost otherwise. This is vitally important in these three mini comics, which consist only of David Byrne’s “talking heads.” Moving the camera in and out slowly as characters share their stories, Fox creates movement in otherwise static scenes. The facial expressions are simple, managing to convey a character’s feelings with the closing of a girl’s eyes or by slightly angling down on her face as she speaks embarrassedly. The changes are subtle, but readers will recognize what the characters are going through, adding weight to the words scratched onto the page.

This evocation of emotion is vital to these stories, especially parts 1 and 3, which have only a single character each. The entirety of each of those minis is a monologue, something that works well on stage but is obviously much more difficult to pull off in comics. And yet, Fox achieves this feat admirably in both of these mini-comics, hitting his audience with an emotional punch at the end of each one. It is this successful balancing act which makes these bookends the two strongest tales of issue #7.

EARTH MINDS ARE WEAK #7 was a stimulating read for me. I love stories that ask challenging questions and get me thinking about something from a new angle. Fox manages to do this while also telling entertaining stories in the process. His stories got me thinking more seriously about format and comics with the varied dimensions of the three minis within. It, along with other books at the Expo, opened my eyes to the possibilities still to be found in this medium. And if you love comics, you should definitely check out Justin Fox’s EARTH MINDS ARE WEAK #7 and keep an eye out for other issues in the series. I know I will.


INDEPENDENT PROPAGANDA: Why comics? What does this medium offer you as a storyteller that others might not?

JUSTIN J. FOX: Why comics. It's a question I think I've answered a different way every time I've been asked. Part of me thinks the answer to why I like working in comics is the same as the one I'd give if someone asked me why I like eating pizza. Part of the problem with talking about it is, I've been reading and drawing comics since I can remember. Before that, even. And every time, whether it was getting the one or two books I'd get each summer, waking up each morning to get new comics delivered in our driveway or stealing myself away from some dull chore, reading or drawing comics was always something of an event. It was something that was my own, like some private party. They were these rare occasions I would get snippets of conversations glimpses of adventures. And I'd pore over them like they were some secret manuscript. You could watch TV or a movie or a cartoon and enjoy the moments, but you couldn't immerse yourself in the work. Once it happened, it was gone forever. And they had something to offer that books didn't. The images, the best ones, had things prose just couldn't capture. More than just illustrating a moment, there were lines and shapes and splotches and colors that said more to me than just who was where when they did some thing. They said something about a way of seeing the world, a world transformed by the mind and by the hand. I was getting a chance to immerse myself in the way other people did that, something I could only do for an audience of one, with only one person to do it. I think those experiences have stuck with me. Drilled a hole right into my subconscious. Now, every Wednesday, every convention, every time I sit down at the drawing board, those special moments inform the ones I'm still having. They infuse whatever I'm doing and ensure that I think of that time, now, as special. I loved the comics I was reading, and I wanted to take part in that.

That said, me likem comics good time.

INDYPROP: Does the title EARTH MINDS ARE WEAK have any significance to the stories found in your mini comics? If not, where did the title come from?

FOX: After finishing my first story to be published, I started working on a super hero story, of all things. It was about an alien that was trying to invade our planet through the dreams of a cartoonist. His rationale was that, "Earth minds are weak.” Well, the book fell apart about fifteen pages into the inks (as the most frustrating things often do). I then decided to serialize that first story in a minicomics series, but needed a title. That alien's line wouldn't leave me alone. I decided that would be my Eightball, my Giant Monster, my Optic Nerve, my Acme Novelty Library.

I like the way it sounds like something you might've heard turning on the TV on a Saturday afternoon and stumbling upon some strange, old science fiction movie. I also like the way it touched on our culture. We're always being told that we're just not smart enough to understand anything in great detail. Science has gotten pretty far away from actual experience. Religion hides behind mystery. The workplace has become more specialized. Our parents refuse to answer our questions. The news struggles to explain the world. A drunk at the bar declares that all men, or all women, are stupid jerks.

We exhaust an awful lot of time and energy imagining someone smarter than ourselves. Or wishing we'd been as smart five minutes ago, when it mattered, as we are now. When you make a comic, you get to offer that witty rejoinder exactly when you wish you had, or take the time to explore those questions we can't answer right away.

What does it have to do with the stories? Well (despite what one indignant man thought when he read the title, "Earth Minds Are Weak? What makes you think you're better than us?!"), the title is about my own struggle. My own inability to make the comics I want to make. About playing with the form and storytelling to push myself where I want to go. To paraphrase someone smarter than me, making art isn't about shining a light at the end of some darkened cave to lead us all to safety; it's about feeling our own way out, inch by inch. The title is a reminder to myself, that no matter how good I think this page, this panel is, I'll hate it tomorrow and need to make the next one better.

INDYPROP: The three minis in EARTH MINDS ARE WEAK #7 are of three different formats. How do you decide on the format for each story and what thoughts go into this process?

FOX: When I start writing a book, I write it (and I 'write' in cartooning) at the size I plan to make the book. Usually, when the idea starts to strike me, however that bit of inspiration happens to come, I have an idea of how I want the reader to hold the book I'm thinking about. How close my hands should be to one another, how close the book should be to the eyes, its weight as an object. Is there color in the idea itself? Is there a density to the idea?

With “The Game,” I knew there were going to be a lot of words. So, I knew that it was going to have to be bigger just to accommodate them, even if there weren't going to be a lot of background details or set pieces. I also wanted to catch that thing that happens after people sit around and tell stories. There's a density to the memory. Just trying to hold the stories in your mind, it's hard to keep the telling in there. So, I wanted it to be like a flood with few pauses.

“Remember” was supposed to be smaller at first. A bit more precious, I guess. But the art and lettering kept disappearing on me. While I think it's important that the form match the story, the thing was getting too far up its own ass. I knew the color was there. I knew exactly who this girl was, from the length of her neck to the color of her hair to the way her dress straps fell. She was very real to me, the way a dream feels real when you first wake up. And color, to me, always seems more like something in our minds or dreams than it does in reality. Like it moves a bit slower than the edges of an object might. Maybe I've watched too many TVs with bad reception.

“I Am God” is all about the pause. When that little fragment of a story came to me, it wasn't so much a comic as it was the things that aren't comics. It was about something frozen. Something that was paralyzed. That's why there’s only one panel on each page. It stops the transition between panels. And it felt small. Like something you were forced to have close to you that you could remain a bit detached from.

INDYPROP: I found REMEMBER to be the most stimulating part of issue 7 because it really got me thinking more about memory and I was curious about the genesis and creation of that particular story and wondered if you could speak to that?

FOX: All three stories came from the same place. I was reading Jorge Louis Borges's Collected Fictions on my commute, on my lunch breaks and during any free moment I had. There's something about the way that he writes that made me feel like I had read (or heard) all these stories before. There's a familiarity to his voice and a sense of the inevitable, even when he surprises you.

He writes around violence, its memory. Around these murderers who are no longer around. He writes about liars. And he writes about labyrinths. But he's really constructing these labyrinths. He traps you in the lies of his narrators, and he fools you with their memories. He confronts you with your own memories of your own life: the way you change some details, leave some out and reshape the past. As much as all his stories are about memory, they're also about that other thing. About forgetting.

So, I had his stories in my head (reading so many of them at once is like diving into the tidal wave), and their familiarity was breeding concept. Suddenly, I was 'remembering' stories that I never thought of, that never happened. Mixing with these stories, that came to me fully formed as I thought them, was the realization that they were lies, told by liars. And as I kept telling myself the story that would become “Remember,” there was this lingering thought. I read somewhere that if you really wanted to remember something when you woke up, you should think about it just before going to sleep. Seems like sound advice, but who can recall that moment just before falling asleep? I've never met anyone who could remember those actual last thoughts. And, it seemed to me, that an interesting game to play would be saving those thoughts we most wanted to forget for the moments in between our last memories and our first dreams. But, is it possible to do that? If I think about something as I'm about to fall asleep, it usually keeps me up. And, if you keep trying to save some thought for last, you wind up in Zeno's paradox. You wind up infinitely halving the time between the previous thought and sleep. I think anyone who tried to contemplate that would go completely bonkers.

INDYPROP: What projects are you working on now and when can readers expect to see them?

FOX: I'm working on a new serial called 'Kaiju Jugoruma', starting in Earth Minds Are Weak #8. It's something of a trippy science fiction story. In the first chapter, a man falls out of the sky and lands on the hood of another man's flying car. If EMAW #7 found me working on stories that were fully formed at inception, this one finds me trying to find out 'what it's all about' as I go along. So far, it's been a lot of fun. The new issue should be in stores and online at our store in January.