I liked Crickets #2, but nowhere near as much as Charles did, and there's several nagging, irritating, persistent reasons for my lack of enthusiasm.
One is Sammy Harkham's (mis)use of what I call the tiny fragment approach. This is a storytelling mode currently popular in alternative comics where an artist works within three specific formal constraints: small panels, simplified rendering that fits legibly into those small panels, and short strips (usually less than 10 panels in number) built to interact with other strips on the same page or in the same book. Chris Ware's dust jacket for McSweeney's #13, "Comic Section," is an orgy of tiny fragments, where strips like "God" and "Adolescent Power Fantasy Man" are comprised of small panels and characters drawn like fat balloon stick figures. These individual strips, however, aren't isolated from each other like the offerings on a typical newspaper comics page. Rather, Ware writes and draws his strips as fragments that connect into larger stories. "Our Exciting Universe," "Your Expanding Abdomen Repulsed Me" and "Eisensteinian Labor Pains" are located in different areas of the McSweeney's cover, but they nevertheless interlock to tell a story about the conception and birth of a child abandoned by his father (click those thumbnails):
This kid grows up to be a cartoonist, and comics about him as an artist are also on the cover. Ware's invocation of Sergei Eisenstein here is important; Eisenstein (and most of the other directors of the 1920s Soviet Montage movement) believed that the essence of film was the juxtaposition of single shots into longer, more cohesive sequences. Single shots are the building blocks, the fragments, that an artist arranges into something bigger to persuade and affect audiences. The "Labor Pains" strip does exactly that: we never see the most important event, the child's birth, but Ware's arrangement of individual frames makes us infer that the birth has occurred.
Inside that McSweeney's is another "tiny fragment" story, David Heatley's "Portrait of My Dad." It's 30 strips in 5 pages, and it's jammed with eccentric anecdotes about both Pa Heatley and David himself. (I hadn't seen Heatley's art before this McSweeney's, and it turned out to be my favorite in the book.) Three of Heatley's strips are "Can I Show You My Begonias?" "D.Q." and "We'll See":
Heatley, like Ware, offers us an avalanche of fragments that give us information about a subject, but we make our own inferences; we draw our own conclusions about Heatley's dad. Because people are so complex and mercurial, a postmodern portrait made from fragments like this feels more true to life to me than a portrait that follows a more typical storytelling structure. (I hate that most Hollywood bio-pics have clear "thru-lines," since a person's life is just too big to stuff into a straight-forward plot.) But the "tiny fragments" strategy has fictional uses too: consider Evan Dorkin's "Fun!" strips (many of which have continuing characters like Phil the Disco Skinhead and Myron the Living Voodoo Doll), or Seth's Wimbledon Green, where Citizen Kaneesque interviews, "facts" about comics collecting, and wacky pulp adventures flow together and create lingering questions about Green's identity and ultimate fate.
As Charles writes, Crickets #2 includes "a baker's dozen [of comics] densely crowded together" that "vary in size from a few postage stamps' to two whole pages' worth." Most of these--the strips on the double-page spread on pages 16-17, and the strips on page 20--can be defined as "tiny fragments." I was disappointed to discover, though, that Harkham's fragments don't connect or interact to make any bigger points. Charles labels some of the fragments "bitchy insider stories," and finds wit and ambiguity in them. I don't. They just feel like they were written by a bitchy insider, full stop. Harkham deserves hosannas for his superlative work on Kramers Ergot--our 21st century Raw--but he's so star-struck from palling around with his favorite cartoonists that he thinks we should all find it so cool that Christopher Forgues plays his iPod loud or that James Sturm is too "fucking retarded" to accept Harkham's Kosher dietary restrictions:
This fragment, and others like it, strike me as pointless rather than witty and ambiguous. As if he senses that this insider material won't maintain our interest, Harkham plugs some disturbing moments into other strips--a guy punching a topless woman in the face, another guy bragging about pumping a woman "full of cum" while standing with her in a supermarket line--but the incidents, while momentarily outrageous, ultimately fall flat, bereft of a context that gives them the capacity to move us. The one glimmer of genuine feeling that arises in these strips is Harkham's nervousness about his wife's pregnancy, but this feeling is submerged in a morass of indy-cred anecdotes and cheap shocks, and these disparate elements never cohere into something more meaningful. Harkham's fragments read like sketchbook drawings rather than organic parts of a whole as in "Comics Section" or "Portrait of My Dad," and as a reader I prefer work with deeper aspirations.
To be sure, Crickets' main event, "Black Death," runs deeper, though I have some misgivings with that story too. As usual, Charles has it right: "Black Death" reads like "reckless, scudding improvisation," and what struck me as most improvisatory about it is its inclusion of some profoundly different visual strategies under the umbrella of its narrative. Sometimes, Harkham focuses the reader's attention by stripping away background detail and reducing the image to a single plane. On page 10 of issue #2, six panels feature the loon from the well in a medium close-up, colored a monochromatic pink that makes him jump out from pitch-black backgrounds. Similar are pages 14 and 15, when the worm crawls into the Arrow-man's ear, a scene likewise staged without backgrounds, against a sea of black, and absent of everything but man and worm:
As Charles' careful description of the back cover indicates, however, Harkham also stages in-depth in Crickets #2, often hiding figures in thick, feral foliage. Some of the panel compositions in "Black Death" remind me of the incredible tracking shots in films by directors like Akira Kurosawa and Federico Fellini. At the finale of Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960), a group of partiers walks through a grove of trees to a beach, and the effect is stunning: trees dominate the foreground and background as the camera moves along with the partiers, shooting from a perpendicular angle as the partiers walk from left to right, occasionally vanishing behind tree trunks. Several panels in Crickets #2 of Arrow-man and Golem wandering among the trees are likewise drawn in long shot from a perpendicular position:
Harkham is one of the owners of L.A.'s Silent Movie Theatre (which, incidentally, has wonderful programming; check out their website right now!), so I suspect that he's familiar with the Dolce Vita tracking shots, as well as with other filmic examples and theories (for example, Andre's Bazin's arguments in favor of deep focus) that might inspire pictures like the one above. Sometimes these deep-focus pictures are strikingly beautiful, but sometimes they're a little confusing too:
In this panel, Harkham's love of layering and clutter makes the picture momentarily hard to read. The plethora of sound effects--"Slap!" "Flap!" "Thwak!"--distracts us from the central action of the panel, the bird's flight as he flitters off the Golem's bucket head and slams into Arrow-man's head, pushing him down the well. (In an excellent but more positive post about Crickets #2, Ken Parille draws a comparison between the "Thwak" panel and a panel from a Katzenjammer Kids strip, but to me the Katzenjammer panel is a lot more "legible"--I didn't have to pause to figure out what was going on.) I admire Harkham's stylistic experimentation here, his willingness to combine the cartooniness of his figures with elaborate backgrounds and foregrounds and idiosyncratic pink color. But...
I wonder if this is the best direction for Harkham's art in the long run. My favorite Harkham work is Poor Sailor. Even though I owned Kramers #4, which includes Poor Sailor, I had to buy the separate Sailor mini-hardcover as soon as it came out because the story deserves the showcase treatment, because of its profound "tenderness and alarm at the frailty of life" (to steal Charles' wise words). I'm not finding tenderness in Crickets, however, and the comic's Bava-Romero-inflected horror is less to my taste. (I also don't find the book funny like Parille does.) I'm bothered more, though, by Harkham's almost willful refusal to strike a tone or style and stick with it. What I liked most about Poor Sailor was its organic unity: no matter how awful or tragic the event, Harkham paced the story with the steadiness of a metronome, with clear and consistent rendering, allowing us to empathize with the man and woman even as they make decisions that carry terrible consequences. Everything about Poor Sailor feels deliberate and well-thought-out, but I can't say the same about Crickets: the indy fragments and the wild vacillations of style in "Black Death" point to an artist willing to try anything because, maybe, he's lost his own personal vision for his art. This is particularly true of Crickets #2's cover, which is a real eye-melter, but which also shows that Harkham's trying too hard to be Paper Rad.
There are plenty of reasons to buy Crickets #2--Charles implies that "Elisha" is the best strip in the book, and it's terrific--but I worry that Harkham himself is, metaphorically speaking, lost in the forest, with an arrow blinding his eye and clouding his vision.