It’s time for a peek behind the curtain here at Optical Sloth headquarters! Bernie sometimes sends his tiny comics to me in regular old, smallish envelopes. Sometimes, or at least one time, said envelope slides down a crack into a strange nether realm, only to reappear after I have moved into a new apartment at least a year later. Just in case anybody out there keeps up with all of this in real time and wonders why #16 is getting reviewed after #17-19. Anyway, the impetus behind this particular volume was Bernie asking the internet the following question: “how do I deal with an existential crisis?” He scatters a few answers here and there, but I’m not going to give away the answer, as Bernie does uncover the basic secret of our existence, but you know how I hate spoilers. As always, the text epilogue in the back is invaluable, and you should really be reading these, even if you have to go back in time to March 2013 (when this came out) to do so. $1
If you’re keeping track of the chronology of the life of Bernie, read DemonTears before this one. And hey, a little bit of trivia: DemonDust was initially called DemonGun, for reasons that he explains in this collection. This collection contains issues #1-11 of that series (the name change happened with #8), which nicely coincides with when I started reviewing this series at #11. I missed quite a bit of backstory coming in at that point, but now I’m caught up and know the whole story. Well, I know the parts he chose to put in his comics, as he’s pretty open about the fact that there are plenty of details of his life that he’s not going to be sharing with the readers. Which is fine! Anyway, this one starts at a time when Bernie’s recovery from alcoholism was still a new and shaky thing, and the early issues of his series very much reflect on this state, as he wonders whether his no longer drinking is what’s contributing to his writer’s block on his other series (An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten, and don’t make me tell you to read that one again). This is very much a book where you’re rewarded for keeping up with his other projects, as characters from current and future series show up with a bit of regularity. He mentions who they are each time, but you’d get more out of it if you’ve also read their stories in their proper series. Other subjects in here include splitting himself in two over and over again, getting to know his addiction, the slow death of his grandmother, keeping up with his puppets, zen buddhism, bacon, coming to terms with the reality of his sobriety, dreams, and everything else that came with this time in his life. This collection includes everything from those comics, covers and epilogues and everything, so don’t worry if you missed them while they were coming out. This book along with DemonTears will tell you lots about these years of Bernie’s life. Not everything, and lots of it is dreamy and abstract enough to be left open to interpretation, but this is a fantastic collection of his thoughts over about a year and a half. $10
Uh-oh, it can’t be a good sign if Bernie is combining issues, and that turns out to be true after reading this one. See, Bernie has been living his life and working on his other series (An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten, and shame on you if you don’t know about it), which leads to this comic having what he calls “an incredible lack of focus.” Still, you clearly haven’t been reading his stuff if you think that this means that the comic is worthless. Things start off strong with Gank, a man who exists for “snapping people out of their complacency.” I should mention that these quotes are all from his afterward, which is always worth the price of admission in these minis all by itself. He gets in the face of an obnoxious guy on his cell phone (do I still have to say “cell phone”? Can’t that just be the default assumption for “phone” at this point?), finds a joint in the mop bucket in a store bathroom, and then the strip falls apart. We start to see Bernie’s notes at the tops of the pages and the story disintegrates, complete with blotchy ink spots on the final page. The #19 part of this is even more discombobulated, as it’s only two pages of wondering where his summer went, complete with the same notes along the top margin. It’s still an interesting book, for the peek into his creative process and the afterward where he goes into detail, but probably not the best book to start with if you’re a new reader. Then again, if you’re a new reader of anything and you’re starting with #18, that’s kind of on you. $1
That’s right, the cover show the Karate Kid in space. No, the comic does not build a complicated story explaining how he got into space, but is instead a dreamy comic about letting your mind expand, pondering your existence and trying not to overthink things. Can you relate to that? Sure you can. Bernie is still using this comic to experiment with whatever is most in his thoughts in any given month, but promises in his afterward to get back to more conventional narratives in future issues. For this one you get to spend a little time thinking about the big questions in the world, or at least the best way to go about not thinking about those questions. Three cheers for him keeping this up, and how he finds the time between this and his other projects I’ll never know. But he is making some of you slackers who only put out one book every few years look bad. Are you going to stand for that? Better get to work on your next three projects to show him that you can do it too…
Bernie is on a serious roll lately with his comics. Hell, maybe with the rest of his life too, but I have no way of knowing about that. But he’s putting these DemonDust books out just about monthly, still working on his ridiculously impressive “An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten” series, AND building a universe for another mini comic series that he’s starting up. Most comics creators would be content with keeping just one of those things going, and Bernie is out there making the rest of you look bad. The only way to make up that ground is to get to work on a series or two yourselves, other comics artists! Anyway, this issue deals with the troubles inherent in trying to create a comic by staring at a blank piece of paper and hoping for inspiration. This leads to a piece of paper that is able to breathe and talk, although seemingly only to ape whatever somebody near it is saying. We see the process by which this paper is made, reflect on the mantra of the paper, and finally get a character revolt about the content of the story. Bernie always ends these books with a text piece on the state of his life/projects/month, just in case you insist that a mini comic that looks this good that still manages to come out monthly is not enough for you. It’s another solid issue, but if you insist on a continuing story I’d recommend his other series. I haven’t read his new one, “The Cosmouse,” but his other series should be read by all humans and you know what? I’m going to recommend his new series without even seeing it. Eventually it’s possible to recognize when somebody just does good work, and I think Bernie has more than crossed that bar.
An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten Volume Two
Color! If only it was possible to use it in more small press books. Bernie makes good use of it this time around, and things slip more into dreams in this second book. We get to see a lot more of Lichi (the villain of the story? I’m starting to think that nothing in here is as simple as all that), a dream conversation that Buckeley has with his dead children that will break your heart, a bar battle between Lichi and an outmatched dog (that turns into a battle between the dog and an even more outmatched dog), Buckeley’s old house and the current inhabitant, Lichi trying to prod a sentient mountain into assisting him in his vendetta against Buckeley, Lichi interacting in a dream with his younger self, the cows mourning the parts of themselves that never gets used and shines on the hills, and the return of the llama from the first issue and his desperate search for tits. I guess if you wanted to nitpick you could say that not much changed on the real world end of things, but this book was perfect in really fleshing out everybody involved in all of this. Except maybe for Skunk and Beverly, but we did get to see a bit from the early years and I’m sure there’s still plenty more to come on those two. Colors were rarely used, granted, but when they were used I couldn’t picture it being done any other way. The llama in all his battle gear glory, a quiet moment with the stars, seeing Lichi through the eyes of a family that he’s killing, everything was damned near perfect. I don’t want to jinx the guy by saying that this might end up being one of those rare comic series that we end up showing our friends to prove that it is too a real artistic medium, but it sure has that potential. It’s bizarre while making total sense and riveting even though so much is still to be uncovered. I can only hope that his financial support holds out and he’s able to finish this as he wants to, and hey, your buying copies of these two volumes sure wouldn’t hurt. $10
An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten Volume One
I reviewed the first issue of this series years ago, and Bernie was recently nice enough to send me the first two collected editions, making up the first six issues of the comic (that’s assuming he’s even putting them out in single issues any more, as he may have decided to just put out the collected editions for financial reasons). In my first review I mentioned that it’s projected to be 12 issues, which may or may not still be true, but these two books should give a solid impression of the series regardless. Right away I have to warn you: if that title strikes you as whimsical, that you might get a lot of chuckles out of a series with that title, that will not be the case. Unless you’re a remarkably morbid human being, I guess. Things start off with our hero Buckeley trying to get some distance from the war he’s fighting. The journey is told in grim but exacting detail, and we see him immediately being sickened by the town he’s arrived in. Bernie didn’t skimp on the level of detail at all here, as even the individual people in the crowd scenes are distinctly individual people (unlike lots of people who draw a few faces in the crowd and leave the rest of it an indistinct mess). Buckeley eventually makes his way to what he thinks is a peaceful place, only to discover that bombs are landing in his resting area. I don’t want to go into too much detail, as this series should be read by any person with an interest in the quiet moments of a pointless war, but from there we get to meet some of the nastier (and nicer, and sadder) inhabitants of this town, Buckeley’s wife (and what she is now doing for a living, not to mention who she’s living with), and various other residents of this town. The third issue is set entirely in a bar (outside of a few flashbacks) and it’s absolutely riveting. We get to see how this war affects people and creatures from a few different walks of life, including the reason why everybody thinks Buckeley is a war hero (and the real story behind the heroism). The details of this universe are laid out bit by bit, with plenty of things still left to be uncovered. I apparently wasn’t fully convinced just from reading the first issue of this series, but reading the first three issues in this collection washes those doubts away. The quiet, deliberate nature of the revelations draws you right in and keeps you there, and I think I’m going to break my unwritten rule about not posting reviews about the same person on consecutive days and will read and review the second book tomorrow. So for long time readers, that should give you a better indication of how much I liked the first book than anything I could say here. $10
You know what just about everybody who makes comics should do? Put out little 8 page niblets like this. Make your own theme, do your own thing, but just doing something on a regular basis would do wonders for some of the artists who only put out graphic novels or gigantic mini comics. Just a suggestion, and it has nothing to do with the contents of this comic, but hey, I occasionally like to make helpful suggestions/meddle. This one starts off with a very brief recap of the state of the world (it’s election time) and features a man with a pumpkin head and an elf using various over-the-counter drugs to get themselves ready to go for an evening of playing video games. See, I say it like that and it seems overly simplistic. You also have the ethics of a man with a pumpkin for a head having a friend who is looking to buy a pumpkin and carve it for a decoration, some traveling, some conversation, and the inevitable result of all of those drugs. It’s all capped off by an afterward on the state of life in general at the moment of his producing this comic, and a tidbit or two about the making of it. It’s funny, bizarre, and has a nice starter list of drugs that you can buy anywhere (although I have no idea of their effects, as they’re all new to me/possibly made up for comedic purposes). So check it out. In fact, why not just buy a stack of these? Like I said, they’re short, so that makes the most sense. $2
Did I black out and miss a few years of Bernie’s comics? Nope, I just checked the review from his last book and it’s from August 30th of this year. Still, here he is with #11 of the series that supposedly comes after that book. Baffling! Well, whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Normally I’d be at least mildly annoyed that I was only seeing #11 of a series, but this issue is perfectly self-contained.Which doesn’t tell me much about the rest of the series either way, but I’m trusting where this guy is coming from. This comic is all about picking new characters to star in the series, as “writing your self as a protagonist in comics can be a little nerve-racking for an introverted procrastinator” (said by the ambulatory brain from the last issue). We get to meet a wide range of characters, some from other series (who knew that “An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten” was up to seven issues? Everybody but me? Damn) and some that seem to have come right from his imagination. Or other sources that I couldn’t identify. It’s a damned funny book, which is something that has been missing from most of Bernie’s previous comics, so if you’re just looking for a good cry you may want to go back to some of his previous work. For the rest of you, when exactly is funny ever bad? It’s a good starting point for people who are new to this series, so you could either go with this issue or take a risk and start from the beginning. Based on everything I’ve seen from the man I’d be pretty shocked if the early issues of this series were terrible. $2
I have exactly one complaint to make about this utterly riveting, depressing, uplifting, real-as-it-gets-while-being-largely-based-in-dreams comic: it’s too short to be a proper graphic novel. Which doesn’t mean a damned thing in and of itself, as it doesn’t feel too long or too short. It’s just that graphic novels stick around for longer than single comics, and this comic deserves as long of a shelf life as is humanly possible. This comic deals with Bernie’s (or fake Bernie, in case this isn’t somewhat autobiographical) long trip out from alcoholism, told partially through bits of his real life and partially through a dream world that he is rudely forced into every night via his nightly blackouts. It would take a few thousand words for me to even attempt to explain all the symbolism and happenings in those dream bits, and I would most likely get chunks of it very wrong, but the Center for Cartoon Studies should put this in their curriculum toot sweet. The true horror/sadness of this comes in the real life bits. We see his hands start to shake as he’s drawing, happy evenings that he spent partying with friends always ending the same way, waking up just to take aspirin in the middle of the night, and his brief time spent sober with his family for dinner. The eventual conclusion wasn’t even remotely tidy, and it wasn’t meant to be followed by a group hug. Without giving anything away, he earned every bit of the events at the end of this book, and he deserves all the credit in the world for refusing to shy away from just what it took to get there. Flipping through this book again it just seems wrong for me to gloss over the dream parts the way I did, but they build such a careful narrative piece by piece that I’d feel like a dick just plucking bits out of context. I will tell you that Bernie is represented in his dreams by a floating brain that’s trailing a spine, and that does eventually become relevant. This book is an absolute triumph, and he depicts the warning signs clearly enough that there are bound to be a few people reading this who are looking at their own hands, wondering if that slight bit of shaking is just a side effect of getting old or if it’s from all the years of just a little too much booze. Buy it, tell your friends to buy it, and, if you know anybody in AA, you might think about passing some of these out at a meeting. Most human beings could learn a lot from this. $6
Trubble Club #1
You know, there really are times when it’s pointless to review a comic. It sounds like a cop out, I know, but Trubble Club is a jam comic involving about a dozen cartoonists in Chicago. They meet every Sunday, put together some jam strips, and (I’m guessing here, as the actual information about this process on the website was sparse) put out a new book whenever they put enough material together. Who are these people? Really, this should be all it takes to convince you to check this out: Al Burian, Lille Carre, Ezra Claytan Daniels, Lucy Knisley, Rachel Niffennegger, Bernie McGovern, Onsmith, Laura Park, Grant Reynolds, Becca Taylor, Jeremy Tinder and Marco Torres. If you’re new to this site and these names aren’t familiar to you, plug just about any of them into that search option up there (the full list of artists will be restored one of these days, I swear) and spend some time checking out some quality work. Future volumes, judging from the website, will have other people, and visiting cartoonists will probably get in on the act as well. Honestly, I’m confused as hell about the process here. Every single page is its own story, and it seems most of the time like the next page starts with an idea from the previous page before veering off in its own direction… except for the times when it seems completely new. And I thought for a while that it was one artist per page, but upon closer inspection maybe others are jumping in on different panels. All I know for sure is that this much talent thrown together in a room can’t go wrong, and I hope they keep it up for… let’s see, they’re probably all in their late 20’s or early 30’s… how about another 50 years or so? OK, fine I’ll mention a few of the topics, just to prove how pointless it is to analyze such a thing. An unhygienic stump, Sackley, a doomed giant hot dog, “footsie”, mancakes, and we gotta cook this hog. This is $3 and worth every penny.
An Army of Lovers Will Be Beaten Book One Now Available! $6
As always, three cheers for an absolutely wonderful title. This is the story Lieutenant Buckeley, a hero in the ongoing war between blue people and constellations in the night sky. Yep, not a typo. This is also one of the major limitations of the small press comics movement as a whole, as whenever there’s a story like this (where it would go a long way to show all those blue people) it would be wonderful to see it in color, it’s just that there’s no financial way to make it possible. Unless the artists were independently wealthy, I guess. Anyway, this first book (of a projected twelve) introduces us to the Lieutenant as he goes on furlough, wandering around a town and trying to avoid all the seamier places, like the local tavern and “El Lay”. He wanders off into an open field to get some rest… which also happens to be where most of those bombs aimed at the stars are landing. It’s a dreamy, surreal tale, punctuated by the relentless naivete of the main character and the fact that a llama ends up saving his life. It’s an interesting first book. I’m not completely sold on the whole thing yet, but I am curious to see what happens next, and that’s all you can ask for out of a first issue.
Pinstriped Bloodbath (edited by Jeff)
What a great idea for an anthology.Â Take various artists, let them use gangsters from Chicago in the 20’s-30’s (or some modern day take on it) and put the whole thing together.Â That suit on the cover folds out as you open the comic, and that little flower in the lapel is apparently different for the different stores stocking it.Â So fine, the packaging is gorgeous, what about the comic?Â There’s a fine collection of talent assembled, and they all have their unique takes on the stories.Â Bernie McGovern has a heartbreaking and gory take on the last moments of Baby Face Nelson, Neil Brideau has a quiet conversation between gangsters as one of them tries to crack a safe, Nate Beaty has a silent take on the constant violence and the practice of soaking of blood from the murder scenes as a macabre souvenir, Rickey Gonzalez shows the last moments of Dillinger (or is it?), Neil Fitzpatrick proves that he can’t draw regular human eyeballs and tells the tale of the gangster killed by a horse (and the gangster’s revenge on said horse), Sam Sharpe retells a conversation he had with his at least mildly demented mother about keeping his “gangster” name, Jeff Zwirek has what appears to be a soundly researched piece about the Thompson submachine gun, and Jeremy Tinder closes with instructions on how to make bathtub gin.Â Throw in a couple of illustrations by Ivan Brunetti and Joshua Cotter and voila!Â You have one ridiculously entertaining anthology.Â You could practically make a series out of all the gangster stories from that time period, but Jeff probably already rounded up most of the high points.Â If you’re at all a fan of this sort of thing it’s essential that you pick this up.Â If you’re at all squeamish, however, things do get a little bloody, because how else could you tell these stories?Â No price, let’s spin the mystery price wheel… $6!