Webcomics are great, but minicomics are satisfying in a way that webcomics will never be able to duplicate. A hand-folded minicomic, especially one still warm from the photocopier, is as intimate and organic as a handwritten letter from a good friend. You can understand why cartoonists made the move from minicomics to webcomics — unlimited distribution, no paper cuts — but you can also understand why some artists still prefer working with ink and paper. It’s more than a medium — it’s part of the artistic statement, a central piece of the reading experience.
Local cartoonist Kelly Froh is clearly a big proponent of minicomics — she’s one of the organizers of Seattle’s excellent Short Run Small Press Expo — and her work is uniquely suited to the medium. Her drawings are as expressive as handwriting, which somehow endows them with a simultaneous crudity and nuance. Even when Froh’s sketching a face in the background that’s no bigger than a dime, for instance, you can still make out a telltale expression of boredom in the two tiny dashes and swooping backwards “J” of the nose.
In 2010, Froh published three minicomics about her time working in the call center at Amazon. Titled Tales from Amazon, each booklet focuses on a different frustration she experienced on the job, in the form of two stories about atrocious coworkers and one nightmarish customer service experience.
Everyone has a story about one of those coworkers, and terrible coworker stories (unlike, say, the “fascinating” story about the dream you had last night, or that highly detailed account of food poisoning you suffered last year) are almost always compelling. The point of a bad-coworker story is to demonstrate clearly irrational human behavior, and to separate the subject of the story from the storyteller and her audience. “I might be awful sometimes,” we think to ourselves when we hear these kinds of stories, “but I would never behave like that.” (Of course, we all silently agree to ignore the fact that since everyone has a bad-coworker story, we’re each very likely to be the unwitting star of someone else’s bad-coworker story. Really, it’s just too depressing to think about.)
Norman, the antagonist in the first minicomic, is a real piece of work. “Norman wasn’t very friendly and we just let each other be,” Froh writes above her illustration of Norman, with his mussed-up hair and unshaven face and suspicious crosshatching across his nose and cheeks. He’s your standard Work Creep, the sort of goon who never displays emotion but still somehow delivers a sense of (at best) superiority or (at worst) simmering resentment at all times. It doesn’t help that Froh’s work duties are less than ideal: “Our job was to direct calls but none of the executives, nor their assistants, took outside calls,” she writes. “Mostly I listened to complaints and offered no resolution.”
Naturally, something happens. Norman one day gets fed up with a security guard speaking on his phone in Indian, and he can’t hold his bile in anymore: he bellows, “What is he saying?!” Then he ventures into an ugly caricature of the language the guard is speaking: “Blah-blah boo-blah boo jah jah blah?!?” (The illustration of Norman in that panel is particularly grotesque; it looks like his face is bifurcating into two, transforming into an ugly ass.) It goes downhill from there, and eventually Human Resources gets involved. Norman turns out to be exactly as awful as we expected from the start, which is satisfying in its own way.
The other Bad Employee story in the Tales from Amazon series is much less clear cut. Linda is a bad boss. She comes across as friendly, but she’s also prone to fits of irrational rage. Froh delivers Linda’s tempestuous moods by drawing her as almost two completely separate characters. In one panel she’s a crucifix-wearing amiable doofus with kinky hair and overly ambitious eyelashes and in the next she’s an exploding sun raining wrath on everything in her orbit, an abstract collection of squiggles and wavy lines hollering about disciplinary letters and the importance of being in the west office when you’re scheduled to be in the west office.
Froh seems to have sympathy for Linda; you get the sense that there’s another, much sadder story unfolding between these panels. Unlike Norman, who you want to see punished, you hope things work out for Linda. She may be an irrational shrieking Greek god of vengeance, but somewhere in there is a fundamentally screwed-up woman who feels bad about herself.
The most harrowing of the three stories is titled “Fois Gras.” It’s about Froh’s experience in the call center when the Humane Society organizes two protests against Amazon — once for selling videos of cockfighting and dog fights and once for selling fois gras. “The Humane Society told people to call Amazon to complain and/or threaten to cease shopping there,” Froh writes. “The phone number they published was mine.” Below that is a self-portrait by Froh, all curlicues and daydreaming eyes, with the word “innocent” pointing at her own face.
The panels that follow, in which people scream at Froh repeatedly for her cruel treatment of ducks and geese, have a certain kind of slow-motion horror to them. Froh isn’t permitted to send the calls to her superiors. She’s not allowed to argue for Amazon, nor would she want to. So she just has to absorb all that hatred, screamed at her by people who likely hang up the phone feeling that they did their part to correct an injustice. The phone rings again. What else can she do? She picks it up. It’s a living.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant