Thursday Comics Hangover: The best of Short Run 2016

Pre-election anxiety kept me from enjoying my Short Run Comix & Arts Festival to its fullest on Saturday. Last year, I wandered the floor for hours and talked to dozens of people. This year, I could only hang on the sidelines before diving into an aisle for a few minutes and then, overwhelmed by the crowds, retreating again. (Luckily, thousands of people were there to pick up my slack: it seemed as though there were even more attendees at this year’s Short Run than at last year’s, and social media seems to indicate that most of Short Run’s artists sold more books than any other year of the festival.) Because of my inability to mingle for very long, I came away from the festival with a very small stack of local comics. But it was one of the most satisfying hauls I’ve pulled away from any Seattle-area convention.

In addition to her contribution to the Rock Is Not Dead anthology, cartoonist Noel Franklin has three new comics out this fall. Can’t Say is a collection of short autobiographical and experimental comics, including an essay about gentrification in Seattle. Two other books, Jezinkas and Coyote and Butterfly Woman, are adaptations of old stories. Jezinkas is a folk tale, and Coyote, which is a collaboration with writer Anne Bean, is a retelling of a Nez Perce legend. Of the three, Coyote is the most successful: it transports a fable to modern-day Seattle and incorporates some very current gender dynamics into the narrative, creating something new.

Frequent collaborators Greg Stump and David Lasky each brought new work to the show. Stump was selling a collection of The Group, his 2001 and 2002 comic strip from The Stranger (“back when they had two whole pages of cartoons an issue,” someone grumbled.) The Group is the story of an unlikely team of heroes — an astronaut, a ninja, a dog, and Piece of Bread, a sentient piece of bread — who fight various challenges to world peace, including a devious plot to build a giant cowboy hat on top of the world. Piece of Bread makes some protest signs to stop that plan — “NO HAT” and “STOP THIS LUNACY” and “HAT PLAN SUCKS” — but the rest of the team is reconsidering their options. “Sure, we had our doubts at first,” the ninja explains, “but now I think I’m kinda pro-giant-hat-on-the-earth.” These are good, absurdist gag strips that had nearly been lost to the mists of history; seeing them again after 15 years was an absolute delight.

Lasky’s newest book, I am from the Future, collects every poem Lasky wrote in April of 2016 — one poem each day. As a poet, Lasky is expanding and finding his voice. He writes about cosplayers at Emerald City Comicon, buses that never show up, and confusing Facebook algorithms. Some of the poems in Future are comics, and others are presented in text. It’s the comics poems that really stand out, particularly the one on the back cover about the lines in his comics disappearing, leaving just “The colors in between” — floating pools of color with no borders to keep them separated from each other. The text and images work perfectly together to create a metaphor that could not exist solely in either words or pictures.

The second issue of Punch to Kill, by Kevin Clarke, Wil Long, and Marc Palm, improves on the over-the-top action of the first by introducing gaudy superheroics to the equation. While Punch to Kill is, appropriately, one long fight scene, the transition from the kung fu movie of the first issue to the 1980s-style comics riff of the second adds even more enthusiasm. There’s not really a plot in Punch to Kill — in this issue, a cloaked figure fights a quartet of thinly veiled Marvel characters — but the plotlessness, in a judo-flip kind of way, becomes the plot. It’s all giddy and gorgeous and packed with good jokes, like a superhero named Blastress and a punching sound effect that reads “TOUGH BREAK.”

And speaking of exuberance, two books from Mita Mahato’s table demonstrated a very different kind of excitement. Her latest solo book, Patterns, is a collage of comics characters (an elephant-headed girl, a spoon-headed figure with a pizza cutter sticking out of the bottom of her purple dress) failing to communicate. “Repeat after me,” a horse-headed girl tells a man in a pleated dress, who responds, “after me.” It’s part vaudeville, part demonstration of how hard it is to really talk and listen, and it’s entirely beautiful.

But maybe the star of the whole convention for me was Forty Two, an anthology comic by Mahato, Emilie Bess, and Short Run cofounder Kelly Froh. Forty Two is a collection of short pieces about becoming middle-aged women — there’s a lot of accidental urination involved, and also some weird body hair. Mahato reflects on how difficult it is to be a woman of color “watching brown people on TV growing up” — mostly stereotypes like Tattoo from Fantasy Island — and recalling some of the terrible things people have said to and about her, including “You’re not the kind of diversity people are interested in,” and “Mommy why is she so dark?” Each of the pages in this fanzine-style collection reveals something new about the act of growing older as a woman, and the three cartoonists goad each other into having a lot of fun. Forty Two seems to me to be the perfect use of the zine medium: it feels like a personal document, like a handwritten letter. It’s so confessional, and so fun, and so celebratory, that it can pick a reader up even when it feels as though the world is burning down. These are all voices that deserve your attention.