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February 26, 2008

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Jed McGowan

Very good review. Having read Charles' review and then yours, I have to say your reading of Crickets much more closely mirrored my own. I feel the work started great (Napoleon! being my favorite of the entire pamphlet) and got worse. And I mean really worse. The Black Death had its moments, but added up to little, and I found the auto-bio/Johnny Ryan-style hodgepodge at the end shoddy, overly crude, and ultimately repellent (the James Sturm “retard” comment in particular makes me ill). I like much of Sammy's work--and his work as an editor is beyond question--but I was deeply disappointed with this issue.

CharlesWHatfield

Jed, you traitor!

Seriously, I wonder if our different reactions to CRICKETS have something to do with the series' in-betweenness: neither extended enough to qualify for treatment as an album or GN, nor frequent enough to offer the quick, diversionary pleasures of a periodical. Because so much time lapsed between #1 and #2, I wonder if we don't look for more than we would ordinarily look for in a "comic book," while Harkham seems intent on reasserting the "comic book"-ness of the package, including bitchy insider humor, crudeness, and seemingly castoff stuff. I do agree that some of the filler strips in #2 are exactly that, filler, but I imagine that Harkham intended for the book to have that filler or "hodgepodge" quality. If so, he may be mistaken to aim for that kind of offhandedness in a book that comes out once in a blue moon, but I don't fault him for trying to turn the comic book format to advantage. Even when the attempts fail.

I think that the book's neither/nor status (neither GN nor true periodical) may also affect the way we're tempted to respond to "Black Death." Part of reading a comic book serial is about being on tinterhooks, right, that is, being in suspense and uncertain about a story's ultimate direction, yes? It's just that the chapters in "Black Death" have been so long in coming, and the book is so short, that we're drawn toward conclusions about the story before we've been given enough to base conclusions on. No? In any case, I can't agree that "Black Death" added up to little; it added up to just as much this time out as last. From my POV, each chapter contains genuine surprises: the melancholy of the father and son in #1, the terrible story told by the naked guy in #2. And I have no idea what it's going to "add up to" in the end-all.

In other words, I'm posing a challenge here: Are we simply expecting too much from this slim booklet, in terms of narrative extension and payoff? Very few comic book issues add up to the kind of dense and complete narrative that Clowes pulled off with "Ice Haven," and I'm not sure that's the best thing to look for in a single issue of CRICKETS.

In any case, I can't agree that #2 gets much worse as it goes. The two best bits in it, "Elisha" and "Mother Fucker," come near the end. Granted, each could be seen as a riff on one of Harkham's influences (Chester Brown, Clowes) but I wouldn't go so far as to say, as Craig does, that Harkham has lost his own way.

I will agree, though, that the Sturm anecdote is mean.

Jed McGowan

Me? A traitor? I’ll always be your comics comrade, Charles!

Anyhow, thanks for your response. It was a good one, and it’s got me thinking. Especially the notion that Crickets is basking in its comicbook-ness. I think I may have unfairly condemned Black Death (though just an installment, it did give me some genuine pleasure—I really enjoyed the out-of-nowhere moment when the loony blows air into the donkey’s mouth, for instance). It's too early to judge the success of the work as a whole, but this installment did provide enough content and surprises to be pretty satisfying. (On a side note, it has been great to see the different ways cartoonists have dealt with the issue of serialization in the New York Times Funny Pages. Clowes, to my mind, has been most successful.)

My biggest beef with Crickets is the short strips that follow Black Death. Craig says it better than I could: they “ultimately fall flat, bereft of a context that gives them the capacity to move us.” Now, you may be right that Harkham intentionally made these strips slight, but that doesn’t excuse them. After reading them, all I was left with was their anger, vulgarity and plain mean-spiritedness--because Sammy never dives deeper than that. And I have no problem with crudeness with purpose. The fart in Black Death works, because we have context and it seems to further the story. With these short strips, I think Sammy was hoping the cheap and easy shocks would hide their ultimate meaninglessness. Frankly, I want more from my comics.

And you’re right—“Mother Fucker” is one of the highlights of the book. Its last line, “Get off me you sick lesbo,” may equal the crude language of the short strips, but it carries so much more weight and poignancy. More of that, Sammy!

Man, maybe I should shut up about this. I already clogged up the comments on Ken Parille’s review too.

Well, good discussion here fellas!

Charles, I sent you an email earlier, but not sure I have your right address…

CharlesWHatfield

Craig, re: the "tiny fragment" approach, you've given me a lot to think about, thanks! I like your Heatley examples especially. This is, yes, an interesting design strategy that seems increasingly popular in alt-comix, and I hadn't quite figured out how to describe it until your post.

This is something I look forward to addressing in a future entry!

Craig Fischer

I go AWOL for a couple of days, and things start poppin'€™ around here! Glad to see this discussion, and glad to chime in.

Jed, one point I originally wanted to make in my CRICKETS post (but I ran out of time) was that I felt that issue #2 didn’t have an anchor story, a story complete in itself that gives weight to the comic as a whole. In most of those early issues of EIGHTBALL, there'€™s a multi-page stand-alone tale that complements the "€œVelvet Glove" serial and the smaller bits and pieces. (I think that the first "Ghost World"€ tale in #11 was designed to be such a one-shot, until Clowes drew it and found potential in the characters.) A more recent floppy, UPTIGHT #2, had at least one stand-out story, "€œBefore They Got Better,"€ that served as an anchor. CRICKETS suffers, I think, from too much serialization of "€œBlack Death,"€ too many fragmentary strips, too much incompleteness. I would'€™ve liked it more if it included one several-paged, complete story that represented Harkham at the height of his art. And Hell YEAH, after two years my expectations were high...!

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