A Review Asks Only Whether One Can Live With It Or Die Of It

I've been reviewing small press publications on www.bugpowder.com for a few years now. Totemic small presser Andy Luke recruited me; he'd been impressed with my essay, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll, and was convinced that I could restore some cheer to the reviews section.

Ostensibly a scoff-mixture, Closing Shots From A Grassy Knoll discusses the pathogenic presence in UK small press of comics creators eager to produce work sterilized by an ambition to be adaptable to the strictures of an intrusive company bent on 'product development', and who derive a vanity-buzz of satisfaction from tucking themselves into deadlines and knocked-off scripts. "This budding hack is fuelled by little more than the desperation for a sense of celebrity," I wrote, "and must be destroyed."

My muscular reviewing-style grated with small press enthusiasts' indulgence in self-satisfied congeniality and writer/artist shape-throwing, but I refused to conveniently dismiss creators with throwaway compliments, employing instead a reviewing discipline based on four simple tenets: 1, perspective is to be achieved; 2, the standards by which one is judging the work are to be made clear; 3, credit is to be given where it is due; and 4, one should not be such a fucking misanthrope, you above-being-human narcissist.

Regularly achieving three of the four principles with my aesthetic evaluations, and quickly developing an obsessive-compulsive urgency for production of symmetrically paragraphed reviews, the meaningless absurdity of opinionative writing soon revealed itself to me. I was not deterred.

John Robbins

Manhole #1

Posted on June 19, 2003

Ha! The brain sparks in oblique directions in contemplation of such a title! And though creator Mardou (best known for Stiro) delivers only on some of the suggested resonance, she is probably wise to sidestep any deliberations on the hairy holes of man! (That said, we are not a million miles from Julie Doucet territory. Though, perhaps story-wise, Jessica Abel provides the more apt comparison; and a Debbie Drechsler influence probably lurks some place in the art.)
Three stories account for this first issue, and all offer determined focus and convincing, authoritative voice complemented by honest, natural art devoid of the 'how to' template that instruction provides. (Occasionally betrayed, however, by disagreeably square panels that refuse to sit comfortably on the page.)

In 'Esme's Door' a grandmother tentatively recounts a childhood 'Looking Glass'-type experience to her cynical daughter, triggering a brief struggle between logic and emotion, and highlighting a subtle absence in the mother/daughter relationship. Elevated by a vague sense of subtext existing, this short proves peculiarly satisfying.
'George Best' is an intimate love story firmly rooted in the mundane which details the mostly peripheral experience of a romance interrupted by the exchange of bodily fluids. Matter-of-fact and narrated with a (retrospective) detached coolness, its gradual accumulation of detail conspires to create an irritating stereotype: a vinyl collection; books on Buddhism; Nick Cave, Lou Reed and PJ Harvey; something chemical at work; herb tea and insomnia. Though always captivating and not without humour ("I called in sick and accidentally quit my job"), the passivity of the narration smothers any semblance of gravity and constantly chips away at the prospect of impact.
In 'Mercury Girl' a tenant voyeur tires of merely looking, and, possessed of a master key, sets about 'connecting' with a fellow tenant in his own disturbed way. Lyrically scripted with insular viewpoint, the potential for suspense is not quite realised, but the strip remains engaging in its attempt to provide some insight into a mindset that prompts obsessive infatuation in a somewhat bipolar personality.
Completing the issue is the curious astrological readings of prominent comics creators as dictated by their star signs. A ‘must’ for those who crave a better understanding of fan favourites and their work!

Well realised then, Manhole #1 is occupied with mature, intelligent subject matter. The fluid story-telling, appealing density of both art and script, and a sense of the author's reluctance to deviate from the 'truth' reduce criticisms to mere quibbles and mark the publication as one which offers healthy helping of substance. And yes, it has to be said: this is one manhole punters should willingly step into! (As opposed to lube up and carefully slip into!!)

US size, 32 pages, £2.50 (+50p p&p) – check availability at mardouville.livejournal.com