Friday, June 12, 2015

The Pan Review of Books: Nat. Brut #5

Robert Boyd

The first thing you notice about Nat. Brut No. 5 is the very attractive design. It might remind you a bit of Chris Ware or McSweeney's in this regard; it wouldn't be wrong to call it a little twee. It is square-bound and has a small trim-size, so it feels very much like a literary magazine like Paris Review or Tin House. That's appropriate as it features short stories and poems. But the attraction for me were its visual arts features.

Susan Te Kahurangi King, untitled works fromn the 60s (left) and 70s (right), reproduce in Nat. Brut No. 5

Two were about self-taught artists, Susan Te Kahurangi King and Herbert Singleton. Both of these artists are somewhat well-known to aficionados of this kind of art. King was featured in the 2014 Outsider Art Fair, where she caught the eye of Jerry Salz, who has since written enthusiastically about her; Singleton had a solo show at the New Orleans Museum of Art as part of Prospect 3, which concluded in January. Each artist's work is displayed generously over many pages, with brief essays to explain who they are and why they are important. The art was the main thing, not the writing about the art, and I found that refreshing. (It's one thing I find a little frustrating in the Brooklyn Rail, for example, which is in love with the written word).

Herbert Singleton, Dr. Kilikey The Heroine Man, reproduced in Nat. Brut No. 5

The best visual art piece in the magazine was a presentation of Step and Screw by Trenton Doyle Hancock. If you saw Hancock's most recent exhibit Skin and Bones, which traveled from  Houston to Akron and Harlem, you may have encountered this piece. But the difference between seeing a piece of art on the wall and seeing it reproduced is pretty profound. Usually, a work of art loses something when it's reproduced. But Step and Screw ironically gained something.

Step and Screw contains a comic consisting of 30 panels. Each panel is drawn on a separate page, and in the exhibit, these pages were framed and hung in a series. So you could read Step and Screw in the museum, but it's not, in my mind, a very comfortable way to read. But reading in a book works great. The story is about an encounter between Torpedo Boy, a bumbling superhero who seems to be Hancock's alter-ego, and the Klan.

Trenton Doyle Hancock, Step and Screw pages 17 and 18, reproduced in Nat. Brut No. 5

The comic is structured more-or-less like most other comics: pen-and-ink drawings, word balloons, etc. The panels are all square. But the pages themselves are rectangular, and beneath each panel is a bit of text carefully cut out of the paper. The text does not mirror or obviously relate to the action in the panels above. The texts relate events from Hancock's life as well as other events, each one dated.

Now what interests me here is that the cut-out letters show the physicality of the page. This is highly unusual for a comic. Comics are usually at pains to hide this--we don't see the edges of the bristol board, the pencil lines underneath the final inks, the light blue guidelines, the white-out or any other artifact of the physical artwork or the process of making the art. Usually, published comics make sure that all you see is the image. But here in Nat. Brut, we see the image and the physical page. It reflects Hancock's liminal position--he is on the edges of both the art world and the comics world. And it is refreshing to see the physical page on which a comic is drawn, which Hancock uses inventively. It seems like something that other cartoonists could productively experiment with.

The longest literary piece was an interview by Merritt Tierce conducted by Kayla E., the editor and designer of Nat. Brut. I didn't think it was a very good interview. I learned a lot abut Merritt Tierce from it, so it's not a failure by any means, but it felt like the interviewer just sent Tierce a list of questions. A good interview has back -and-forth; it's an interplay between interviewer and interviewee. One might think of the list of questions as the song standard that a jazz musician uses to improvise from. They're the starting point--no more. Here, here is no sense of conversation between the two.

The short stories likewise didn't wow me. There are six stories in Nat. Brut No. 5, most of them very short. I was particularly intrigued when I saw that one of the stories was by Robyn O'Neil. O'Niel is best known (to me at least) as a visual artist. She draws empty, haunted landscapes. It's a subject that works well as an image--her drawings are suggestive and moody. But her story, "Fall In Love With Me, Hannah Silverman," is a lot like her paintings, and what works in her drawings doesn't quite work in the short story form. It  lacks narrative, just describing a feeling, not an occurrence. Of course, the short story is an infinitely malleable genre, and there's no reason a short story can't consist of a metaphorical description of a person's mental state. But in this case, I found it pretty unsatisfactory.

the cover of Nat. Brut No. 5

Nat. Brut No. 5 also included some poems and some found photos. The photos, assembled by Rebecca Weisberg, seemed to err on the side of the sensationalistic. In any case, I think the best platform for found photos is, ironically, the internet--there are numerous blogs centered around them.

I say "ironically" because up until now, Nat. Brut has been an internet-based magazine. Nat. Brut No. 5 is the first physical issue. Now I have no problem with reading books and magazines in electronic format. I just read Go Tell It On the Mountain on my iPad, and the words were the same there as they would have been in a paper book. But I have to say that Nat. Brut is for me much more satisfying out in the physical world than online. It may be because of its excellent design--that kind of design makes you want to hold and possess a thing.

Now the digest-sized magazine was only part of it. Included with it are two other items, a saddle-stiched newsprint magazine called Sale! and a two-sided color folded poster called Early Edition. Sale! is influenced by Chris Ware's fake ads that he used to run in Acme Novelty Library. Sale! has 32 endless pages of these things. Kayla E. designed it, and the ads themselves were produce by a variety of contributors, including such alternative comics luminaries as Ware, Robert Sikoryak, and Michael Kupperman.  The problem with Sale! is that a little of this goes a long way. No matter how funny they are, hundreds of fake ads start to wear on the reader.

The Kayla E side of Early Edition

Much better is Early Edition. I think this is meant to recall the Sunday newspaper comics section, and it consists of a combination of drawings and comics by a multitude of creators. Some come from the art comics world (Austin English, RenĂ©e French, Ruppert and Mulot, Aidan Koch,  Olivier Schrauwen, and others), the Austin alternative comics scene (Brendan Kiefer, Gillian Rhodes), the art world (Jayson Musson, Lee Baxter Davis, Susan Te Kahurangi King) and many other artists I don't recognize at all. On the two sides of Early Edition are 38 artists in all. Interestingly, Kayle E. "curated" one side and Bill Kartalopoulos, former co-director of the Brooklyn Comics and Graphics Festival, the other. (An aside here--why has the word "curated" taken over the old and honorable word "edited." You don't "curate" print publications. You edit them. Calling it "curating" sounds so goddamn pretentious.)

Art by Gea Philes and Xela Flactem on the Bill Katralopoulos side of Early Edition

It's really easy to tell Katralopoulos's page--its full of images and comics by American and European art cartoonists. These are artists of often oblique comics works done for very small presses--in short, some of my favorites! Kayla E draws a little more from the art world and from Texas-based creators, but to be honest, a lot of the contributors on both pages are not artists I recognize. There's a lot of intriguing eye-candy in Early Edition.

As far as the visual art goes, Nat. Brut was nearly perfect. By showing self-taught artists with contemporary artists with comics, it covers three of my favorite kinds of art. And editorially, it is super-generous with pages to show the art to the reader--Hancock's piece got the full 30 pages it needed. In most art magazines, Step and Screw would have been excerpted at best. The beautiful design distinguishes it from other literary magazines, and the substantial pages devoted to each artist distinguish it from many art magazines. The combination of non-comics images with comics distinguishes Early Edition from most comics-oriented publications. That I don't love everything within this three-part publication is not a disqualification--my tastes are idiosyncratic, and finding a few things that please me in a magazine is enough. I'm hooked, and look forward to the next issue.

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