—Who, you ask, is Dylan Meconis? Why, only one of the Four-Who-Must-Be-Named-For-Easier-Linking, recently added to the radar screen of Scott McCloud’s inestimably powerful links page: that’d be Vera Brosgol, Jen Wang, Erika Moen, and, well, Dylan; four scarily talented cartoonists just out of high school and looking for trouble—lock up your sons and daughters and step away from the Wacom Tablet.
The trouble with the whole Four-Who-Must-Be-Named-For-Easier-Linking shtick (Fwoombuneffel?) is that there’s really six. Or that’s how I think of them, anyway: the Mostly Acquisitions crowd, the six cartoonists who with this 24-page $2.00 ashcan had put together maybe the neatest thing (aside from the Junko Mizuno postcards and the Eddie Campbell original) we’d picked up at the 2002 San Diego Comic Con: Brosgol and Moen and Meconis and Wang, yes, but also Bill Mudron and Kevin Hanna.
People at the con couldn’t stop talking about Mostly Acquisitions: “Have you seen the minicomic with the story about the girl who buys a vibrator?” they’d say. They were talking about Vera Brosgol’s story, “Babeland,” which is, well, a piece about a girl buying her first vibrator: marvellously expressive cartooning with a slyly subversive political kick. But they were all being lazy, referencing the the memorable high-concept hook, and giving unforgiveably short shrift to the rest. There’s Bill Mudron’s loopily obsessive pencil work (check out those plaids!), like one of Al Columbia’s apocryphal Merrie Melodies kicked loose in time. Erika Moen manages to channel Ellen Forney with cheeky assurance (for all that she was seven in ’90, not ’75. Added bonus: I now know what a GeoSafari is. The heart bleeds). Kevin Hanna’s appealing characters with their skinny lines and grey toning and expressive body language manage the neat trick of finding something compelling in the oeuvre of Michael Bay. And Dylan Meconis rounds it all off more than nicely with a beautifully oblique tone poem of hands and words. (There’s not enough poetry in comics, I think. Or is it vice versa? Maybe it’s vice versa.) (Jen Wang did the cover, which just means you have to go spend extra time yourself oohing and ahhing at her impressive command of spacing and timing, which are of course in comics the same thing.) —And this is not to say that there aren’t rough patches and places where an informed critic might suck his teeth and make That Face and say gently chiding things that can’t help but come across as patronizing, but that’s not important now, and that’s not what I’m on about here. (Of course, the fact that an informed critic might choose to gloss over these rough patches could itself be construed as patronizing, so let me just reiterate that it’s not important now and it’s not what I’m on about here.) It’s the joy this Kinko’d minicomic was steeped in, the sheer love of the medium radiating from it, a palpable zing that (with no small amount of craft) reached out and grabbed your collar and kicked you in the pants and goaded you in the ribs. Who the hell were these people? you asked yourself, because you had to. And more importantly: where the hell did they come from, out of nowhere like that?
Well, right here. Mostly. Head back to the Mostly Acquisitions homepage and scroll down to the list of contributors and note how each and every one of them has a LiveJournal. Now follow the various links and note how interconnected they’ve been, across dozens of states and thousands of miles: trading links and tips and posting art for critiquing (or just oohing and aahing) and arranging con trips and sharing their various audiences—hell, having and building audiences of their own by having a way to cheaply and quickly distribute their work far and wide, by the dozen or the thousand, next door or overseas…
Kids these days. —Let’s back up a decade or so. In and around Boston and Amherst (and New York City and northern New Jersey, the Monmouth County area), there’s four cartoonists who are ten years younger than they are right now, and when they go to cons in the New York area they usually end up hanging with Scott McCloud (ten years ditto), who’s doing a funky little black and white comic called Zot! After trawling for back issues of Byrne/Claremont X-Men and Star Wars (Marvel, not Dark Horse; y’all remember that funky green rabbit?) they’d all join Scott at a table at McDonald’s and he’d let fall extemporaneously a chunk of the science inside his head that would eventually become Understanding Comics. (Scott would demonstrate his passion for Naming Things for Easier Linking by dubbing this clique as variously the McDonald’s Club, the McDonald’s Supper Club, or [for obscure reasons] the Haberdashery.) —Heady times, heady times. They all had the religion, then, because Scott is a mighty evangelist for comics, and they did their own minicomics and traded them at cons and through the mail (this was before you had to differentiate it as snail-mail), and whenever they got together (at a con, or at someone or another’s apartment for a massive chips-and-funky-salsas party, say), the sketchbooks would come out and be passed around. Ooh, that’s nice, you maybe should have tried this, look, here’s how I did that. And they did 24-hour comics and collaborated on the occasional anthology and even put together some proposals and shipped them around, but the black-and-white boom they’d come of age with had blown away, and Eclipse was dead and Fantagraphics wasn’t biting and not one of the four of them was interested in doing the sort of chromium-plated super crap that passed for hot comics in those days, and it’s hard, doing your art when no one but your friends is looking (and them only now and again, when you can get together); harder when it’s something as laborious as comics, and as marginalized. And so one by one they slipped away, and Paul went back to music, and Amy went on to collage, and Barry went sort of sideways and eventually into political cartooning, and the only real evidence of this flurry of comics from back in the day is in a couple of boxes in this basement or that attic or underneath the bed.
Of course, there were four. Jenn stuck it out. Which is not to say that the other three were fools or cowards or lacked some Bill Bennett morality-play virtue. This isn’t a parable, and Paul’s music is vivid and funky and beautiful and Amy’s collages are stunning and boggle the mind and Barry is pretty much a Jules Feiffer for our time. (Yes. I am well aware that Barry almost always uses the central technique of comics—juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence—to finesse the timing of his monologual political strips, so he is, indeed, doing comics; don’t muck up my lovely rhetorical point with niggling little facts, okay?) —But what Jenn really wanted to do could only be done in comics; comics was all she really wanted to do; and so she soldiered on (off and on) for ten years or so: ditching her color symbolism off the bat, because what publisher would spring for a color SF comic about female space hobos? Working on her inking, despite the ways in which it wrestled with her more textured, illustrative style. Trimming or padding each installment to fit the 24 pages mandated by the current market and 4-page printer’s signatures. Writing the first issue through four times over to make it fit and drawing it start to finish twice (and a couple more aborted attempts) and all of it in isolation. “The fact that Jenn Manley Lee isn’t making comics professionally today is proof positive that this industry is screwed up beyond repair,” said Scott McCloud once, but who knew? Who cared? Who else could see the work? Fantagraphics still wasn’t biting, and Dark Horse wouldn’t have been interested in the first place. Making copies down at the Kinko’s yourself is expensive, and lugging a portfolio full of artboard from one reader to the next gets tiring, after a while.
But on the web, none of this is a problem. Color? As easy and inexpensive to display as line art, or grayscale. Story or chapter or episode length? Whatever you can get away with. Content? Whatever you like: vampires and the French Revolution, or autobiographically contemplating life after high school over coffee, or reincarnating Anne Frank to fight vicious Moon Nazis, or creepily synchronous letters appearing out of nowhere in a creepy apartment, or the Chinese Zodiac come to life, or pop culture deconstruction and sexual angst. (Or, well, hobos in outer space. That are women.) Whatever you want: write it, draw it, scan it and upload it, then cheaply and quickly distribute it far and wide, by the dozen or the thousand, next door or overseas…
Whatever my purpose in setting these various tops spinning, it isn’t to state that the web is the be-all and end-all, the Omega point, the One True Medium. Paper is still king. For all their LiveJournal notoriety, after all, it was Mostly Acquisitions—6 pieces of 8 1/2” x 11” paper xeroxed on both sides and folded in half and saddle stapled twice—that got them noticed at the 2002 San Diego Comic Con. (Of course, Jenn and I knew to be on the lookout for Mostly Acquisitions thanks to online links and email correspondence, but life is full of little ironies.) Nor is it to state that without the web, comics would soon enough have lost the sparks of the Six-Who-Must-Be-Named-For-Easier-Linking (Swoombuneffel. I think we’re on to something with that—); comics is a harsh mistress, after all, and there’s still plenty of time for one or another or most of them to go back or onwards or sideways and eventually into something else: Vera Brosgol to the harsher and even more demanding mistress of animation, say, or Bill Mudron to the relative respectability of online film (and genre television) criticism; Jen Wang could chuck it all tomorrow for film school and a groundbreaking series of diet soda commercials; Kevin Hanna could become a behind-the-scenes player in Big Content; Erika Moen could renounce the frivolity of comics for a lifetime of committed political activism; there’s still time for Dylan Meconis to become an ambitious multi-hyphenate with a knack for interesting new neuroses. Life is terribly contingent, especially for the (harrumph harrumph) young, and having done comics on the web and done them well doesn’t necessarily doom you to a life of juxtaposing pictorial and other images in deliberate, even narrative, sequences. (And it isn’t even the web necessarily that got them where they are; it’s also having come of age in comics at a time when Understanding Comics and the conversations it spawned are still ringing in the air, when the range of what comics are and can be is far richer than the spectrum from Claremont/Byrne X-Men to Marvel’s Star Wars, when Time has a comics critic and Dan Clowes has a movie. —The industry may be ailing, but the medium’s never been better, and yes, that has a lot to do with it, too.)
I pick up Mostly Acquisitions and get that eat-my-dust oldtimers zing off it, the potential that tingles my fingers and makes me grin—
And I go online and look at how they’ve been able to share their work, and what they’ve said about it, the fanbases they’ve built and the names they’ve checked and the links they’ve shared, and I trace the network from Pittsburgh to Seattle to San Francisco to New York to mishmow to artstrumpet to fartsofire to covielle—
And I can’t help but wonder: what kind of comics would they have made, ten years ago, Paul and Jenn and Barry and Amy? If there’d been a world-wide web? —Also, cheap color scanners.
And I can’t help but ask: what kind of comics might they be making now?
But Christ, I’m nattering like it’s 1997 and Mondo 2000 and instant communities and gift economies and paradigm shifts and the paperless fucking office. The web? Change anything? You give people a way to talk to each other cheaply and easily and they’ll figure out the darndest things to do with it. This is news?
I mean, we all know what the web is really for: Who’s Your Secret Hogwarts Lover quizzes. ’Fess up, y’all.
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