Comics in the Expanded Field: Harkham's Most Ambitious Anthology Yet

By Lee KonstantinouJune 13, 2012

Kramers Ergot 8 by Sammy Harkham

A SPECTER HAUNTS the eighth issue of the avant-garde comics anthology Kramers Ergot: the specter of Kramers Ergot 7.

Cartoonist Sammy Harkham founded Kramers Ergot in 2000. A dedicated dabbler, Harkham devotes himself with great energy to a variety of creative and entrepreneurial activities — he owns the Family Bookstore in Los Angeles and co-founded the Cinefamily movie theater — and started Kramers as a 48-page zine featuring only four contributors: the cartooning equivalent of a microbrew. But Kramers has long since transcended its humble origins, and is now often described as the cartoonist's equivalent of Dave Eggers's McSweeney's Quarterly Concern or an updated version of Art Spiegelman's classic avant-garde comics magazine, RAW.

With each subsequent issue, Kramers has grown more ambitious. Its fourth issue, which moved from Harkam's self-published imprint to Gingko Press, erupted into public view at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in 2003, exciting indie cartoonists, makers of "art" comics, and the broader art world alike. Kramers’s avowedly new style of underground comics — described variously as “psychedelic,” “sketchy,” and “crude” — is printed in gorgeous color format on high-quality pages, and has become renowned for its fusion of the harsh anti-style of mini-comics with the meticulous, gorgeous packaging of art books.

Harkham's ambitions reached their peak with Kramers 7. The seventh issue (published by the now-defunct Buenaventura Press), which emulated the oversized format of early twentieth-century broadsheet newspaper comics, was physically large enough to be used as a small life raft (16" x 21"), cost the reader a budget-busting $125, and featured work by sixty artists, many of them major comics-world celebrities, including Chris Ware, Matt Groening, Seth, Dan Clowes, Ben Katchor, and Adrian Tomine. It was a monstrous undertaking, “sublime” in the strictest sense: a book that threatened to swallow you whole as you studied pages large enough to block your peripheral vision. With this diverse list of contributors came a diverse set of styles; artistically, the physical size of the book itself seemed to be Harkham's major statement of intent.

What next, an anthology the size of a small moon observable only by telescope?

Not quite. By comparison to its predecessor, Kramers Ergot 8 can't help but seem like a modest affair. The format is smaller, a mere 6" x 8", and the price affordable for budget-conscious comics readers. The artists — who include, this time around, Gary Panter, Keon Sadler, Gabrielle Bell, Tim Hensley, Takeshi Murata, Johnny Ryan, Leon Sadler, and Chris Cilla — are fewer and relatively less eminent, and their contributions are far more intimate, as though you happened to pick up a lost sketchbook at a bus station or a pile of napkins featuring rudimentary yet evocative doodles.

Nonetheless, despite its self-conscious smallness, the new Kramers anthology is in many ways even more ambitious than its predecessor; it takes fewer risks with format but more audacious ones with content. Through his editorial choices, Harkham has constructed a de facto argument about the future of indie comics, crafting what he describes in the issue's promotional material as "a more specific and unified aesthetic space" than prior issues.

What exactly are the properties of this space? No one seems sure. In the months that have followed its release, reviews of Kramers Ergot 8 have been mixed. Critics have been especially displeased — in my view, rightly — with a strange framing essay, "Notes on Camp, Part 2," written by the post-punk musician Ian F. Svenonius, and with the issue's forty full-color glossy closing pages, which reprint selections of Ron Embleton and Frederic Mullalley’s lightly pornographic Oh, Wicked Wanda! The original comics in Kramers 8 have been more warmly received, and yet, to date, no consensus seems to have formed on the argument or nature of the so-called “unified aesthetic space” Harkham has tried to create.

Clearly, this space is dark — Kramers Ergot 8 is dense with difficult panel arrangements — and yet simultaneously open, yearning for an escape from the self-referential, ironic, and hermetic tendencies of the indie comics field. Harkham’s vision aims to maximize disturbance through depictions of intimate, grotesque bodily transformations, perversions, and extreme violence, but it also critiques the fetish for the comic book as a collector's object. The new, scaled-down Kramers could thus be viewed as a sort of refutation of the sheer overwhelming materiality of its own previous installments, of which the seventh was the natural, maniacal culmination.

In pursuing this new direction, decamping from the fetish of comics as art-object, Harkham doesn't want us to take the visual vernacular of Kramers 8 — its deployment of popular genres, such as science fiction, fantasy, pornography, or memoir; its consciously unrefined visual style — ironically. Harkham's complex resistance to irony offers the best explanation for why "Notes on Camp, Part 2" is included in the volume. Svenonius’s essay, which is, more often than not, preposterous, attempts to discuss the historical relationship between Pop Art and underground comics, and ends with the stentorian claim that Andy Warhol helped "decloset" America's legion of secret comic book fans. It seems unfair to take Svenonius to task for his many dubious claims — he is, after all, best known as a musician, not a comics historian — and yet by including his essay in such a prominent position, Harkham invites us to take his arguments seriously. What seems to matter, both to Svenonius and Harkham, is that we try to imagine a way of helping comics readers come "out of the closet" without recourse to a "reactionary" irony or camp.

Avoiding camp seems to be precisely what's at stake in reprinting Embleton and Mulalley’s Oh, Wicked Wanda! These strips, published in Penthouse from 1973 to 1980 and featuring the soft-porn adventures of the eponymous Wicked Wanda, her sidekick Candyfloss, and the Puss International Force, were originally intended as comic burlesques, but come to look much more like objets d’art when writ large on the glossy pages of Kramers. Moreover, if we follow Svenonius's instructions, we are specifically being told not to read the inclusion of Oh, Wicked Wanda! as a Pop-like, smirking appropriation of "low" or "base" comics. Harkham seems to want us to read Wanda! as genuine erotic art, something we might read for its own sake, without embarrassment or apology.

Which is fair enough. Unfortunately, the problem with Oh, Wicked Wanda! isn't that we might treat it purely as camp, thus ignoring its aesthetic virtues. The problem is that it's just not that interesting. For all its occasional charm, it feels more than anything like a warmed-over version of Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder's Little Annie Fanny, which was originally published in Playboy starting in 1962. Yes, Embleton's full-color, richly detailed, lovingly painted pages are frequently gorgeous. His female nudes manage to be simultaneously sculptural and graceful, cartoonish but still plausibly sexy (his male figures are more caricatures and grotesqueries, and subsequently less interesting), and contemporary political references — the artists seem particularly obsessed with Ted Kennedy and Chappaquiddick — give the strips scholarly and historical significance. But after forty pages, Wanda wears out her charm, and you wish Harkham had elected to include more original work instead.

Fortunately, the new work in Kramers 8 is more successful. Artistically, there are two major visual tendencies here. Gary Panter's "Jimbo" embodies one dominant style. In Panter's contribution (which features characters from Jimbo in Purgatory and Jimbo's Inferno), Jimbo and his friends visit a store called Hulk Coven, which sells them a "party ball" described as a "universal product." The party ball provides for their every need, and by the end of the comic their desires are so completely satisfied that they have become something akin to consumerist zombies, laying on the floor together, looking up at the images projected by their party balls. Readers familiar with Panter, the so-called father of punk comics and the most famous contributor featured in Kramers 8, will immediately recognize his "ratty line" style, though because of the small format Panter can't use his pages as effectively as he does in his virtuosic Jimbo in Purgatory.

Panter's drawings look strikingly different transposed into the pages of Kramers 8. The smaller format foregrounds individual characters at the expense of overall page composition. Panter's lines are as densely packed as ever; they crowd together into frightening tangles and snarls of crosshatching. Only the so-called party balls, which are rendered in the remarkable final panel of the strip as empty white circles, break up the busy line work — an arresting visual effect that is arguably only possible in the smaller format. As political critique, Panter's strip offers nothing new, but his cartoons are sufficiently disturbing to add a creepy veneer to what might otherwise seems like cookie-cutter anti-capitalist narrative.

It would be fair to stay that denizens of the indie comics milieu Harkham has done so much to cultivate live in Panter's long, ratty, heavily crosshatched shadow. C.F.'s pornographic "Warm Genetics House," which depicts a strangely resonant sadomasochistic orgy, is less dense than Panter's work but no less studied in its crudeness: it reads like a pornographic mini-comic accidentally left behind at Kinko's. Dash Shaw and Frank Santoro's "Childhood Predators," a parody of Dateline's exploitative "To Catch a Predator" series, uses colored pencils to similar effect, though, again, the drawing is far more interesting than the political critique of media exploitation.

Other post-Panter cartoonists succeed by eschewing political and social commentary, letting the manic energy of their drawings speak for itself. Johnny Ryan's grotesque and fascinating "Mining Colony X7170," which features cartoony depictions of tampons spelling out words and well as vagina-dentata-like caverns, offers the most indelible and affecting images in the anthology. In a similar vein, Leon Sadler's "Goblins Orbiting Earth," which features colorful childlike art and non-sequitur panel transitions, though initially exciting, get tiresome. The most amazingly deranged strip in this mode comes from Ben Jones's "The Ultimate Character 2002," which follows the adventures of two friends who have bodies that are giant talking dog-heads and friends who ogle women in bars. The two drink copious amounts of vodka and eat huge amounts of raw hamburger. The fun of this strip comes precisely from its loose, casual storytelling, its polymorphous perverse disregard for coherence and sense, both visual and narrative.

A second stylistic tendency represented in Kramers 8 features “better,” more polished drawings, but equally unsettling content. Kevin Huizenga redraws an old E.C. horror story from Mysteries of Unexplored Worlds #8 called "The Half-Men” — about a suicidal crew manning an oil-drilling submarine — in a Hergé-like style, an improbable aesthetic fusion that leaves the reader unnerved. Gabrielle Bell's "Cody," a pseudo-autobiographical comic telling the story of the murder of a lascivious family friend, is lushly drawn, a fact that renders the dissonance of the murder plot even more horrific. C. Cilla's "Secret Tourist" depicts a story of sex between a tourist and tour guide interrupted by a child who creepily promises, while watching them in flagrante delicto, that "no one will ever find out." In contrast to the sketchy, Panter-esque side of the anthology, these strips feel less like formal experiments and more like finished, self-contained works.

Harkham's own wordless comic "A Husband and Wife," which tells the story of a hunter murdered by his spouse, splits the difference between the two styles, and finds just the right balance between cartooning innovation and narrative power. His line work is at first controlled, but, as the nameless protagonist of his story transforms into a hideous bipedal bag of dissolving flesh, his style loosens up until it comes to resemble splotches of ink that almost completely blacken the page. The effect of Harkham's disturbing strip is a palpable sense that the stable lines, familiar shapes, and comforting colors on the page could dissipate into chaos at any moment. The shift in cartooning style within panels is motivated by what happens between panels.

Another piece that straddles the line between tight and loose, vernacular and crafted style — in my view, the best in the book — is Anya Davidson's "Barbarian Bitch." Davidson’s story scrambles conventional panel transitions, combining two parallel stories — one about a troll, and the other about Barbarian Bitch's search for M.T. Vessel — alongside apparently random images. Most pages feature Buddhist sayings, such as "The greatest action is not conforming with the world's ways" and "The greatest patience is humility." These slogans, serving almost as captions, draw attention to the unity — or rather, disunity — of the page as a whole. It’s a comic you need to read sequentially, in terms of single-page compositional units, and then also nonlinearly, tracing out lines of continuity in the jumble of seemingly unrelated panels. Reading and re-reading "Barbarian Bitch" itself becomes a kind of meditative exercise, a genuinely new formal experience in comics. It is a masterful performance, and, alongside Harkham's own piece, is one of the few strips that perfectly balances the two tendencies on display in the anthology.

Kramers Ergot bills itself as "the premier comics anthology of the twenty-first century." Does this claim hold true, as of the eighth issue? Despite the variability of its contents, and the impossible precedent it’s set for itself with its own seventh issue, the answer is a qualified yes. Kramers is a necessary journal. Its smart combination of theory, difficult new work, and historical retrospective is exactly what aspiring, ambitious comics artists and adventurous fans should be reading now. That the theory and history in this issue happen not to be very interesting is not an argument against the inclusion of similar — better — work in future installments.

Kramers is, currently, perhaps the best we have. If we lived in a world where indie comic anthologies were flourishing, of course, we might have to revise our answer; "premier" is, after all, a relative concept. What we frankly need are a dozen Kramers Ergots, each pushing the boundaries of comics in diverse directions, each publishing regularly. Eric Reynold's now-defunct Mome was perhaps the most important alternative to Kramers in the 2000s. Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, likewise, has featured many important artists, and there are a host of less well-known comics anthologies all vying for attention as they pop out of the quantum foam of the comics universe. Taken together, there seem to be more independent cartoonists doing more original work today than ever before. This should be a golden age.

And yet, despite this potentially wonderful state of affairs, most of these anthologies are published irregularly, hard to encounter unless you already know to look for them, not widely read beyond narrow cartooning circles, and prone to whimsical shifts in editorial vision. Kramers Ergot has been no exception to these trends; its greatest achievement to date may be its sheer, stubborn survival. It remains to be seen whether future issues will continue to develop the themes and concerns of the eighth issue, or veer off in some new direction entirely. If Harkham's Kramers continues with its newly argumentative editorial mission, it might become the premier comics anthology of our time because it has something new and important and serious to say about the future of comics — a vision — and not by dint of merely existing.

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LARB Contributor

Lee Konstantinou is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (2016). With Samuel Cohen, he co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (2012). He is currently completing a study of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.


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