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Comic Reflections on a Networked Age

Review of Kramers Ergot 8 (Picturebox; 232 pages, $32.95)

Since 2003, the influential comics anthology series Kramers Ergot has been the premier showcase for avant-garde comics. While the mainstream publishing industry has promoted the readability of comics, this independent publishing project (edited by Sammy Harkham) has offered a fresh appraisal of comics’ visual qualities, finding common ground with evolving aesthetics in other areas of art. Success—and praise—can kill an avant-garde project, but Harkham’s keen antenna has kept him ahead of expectations.

After exploring more visually extravagant formats, Kramers Ergot returns this year as an austere, digest-size hardcover with longer stories by fewer artists than in previous volumes. Kramers 8 loosely takes the form of a traditional short-story collection but makes no concessions to the sensibilities of mainstream literary fiction. Replete with sexual and violent imagery—there are more swastikas than in all previous issues combined—the work seems, at first, like a throwback to the innovative, taboo-breaking underground comix of the 1960s and ’70s.

But something more timely is afoot. The book’s introduction, by the indie musician Ian Svenonius, finds a cockeyed genealogy for comics in Pop Art, camp, and gay culture, all the way back to a prehistoric, pansexual paganism. Meanwhile, the designer Robert Beatty’s opening digital spreads shifts the relationship Harkham has tracked between art and comics from the neo-
psychedelic collage of earlier volumes toward a more miasmic, computer-based aesthetic.

Warm Genetics House, by Christopher Forgues, a.k.a. CF

Marshall McLuhan predicted that technology would retribalize culture into a global village, and the book’s postapocalyptic first story, by Gary Panter, ends with a communal dreaming session via a mysterious electronic device. McLuhan’s electrically integrated, postliterate world—a world that resembles our own—suggests Svenonius’s polymorphously perverse Eden transformed and returned. The extreme violence and sexual imagery that contribute uniquely to the social dream life of the internet strongly inform this volume, from Christopher Forgues’s aesthetically charged S-and-M fantasy to Johnny Ryan’s sci-fi body horror, supplemented by saturnalian Penthouse comics reprinted from the 1970s.

“Childhood Predators,” by Frank Santoro and Dash Shaw

New media have radically dissolved private into public, demolished traditional propriety, and promoted a new range of aesthetics. Frank Santoro and Dash Shaw’s “Childhood Predators” explicitly addresses the play of identity online. Takeshi Murata’s photorealist digital still lifes echo the ways in which we imperfectly reproduce our mundane world and its tawdry fantasies in new media. Chris Cilla’s story, in which a child blithely interrupts a sexual act, resonates with our new, borderless social spaces.

“Barbarian Bitch,” by Anya Davidson

Anya Davidson’s “Barbarian Bitch,” with its casually effective drawing and fluid representation of nested, mediated fantasies—violent, mundane, and meditative—may best represent this volume’s ethos. In great part, Kramers Ergot 8 reads as an art-comics reflection on the networked age. By gathering work that creates a space to consider something other than comics, Harkham again argues successfully for the relevance of the form in a time of epochal change.

All images courtesy Picturebox.

Bill Kartalopoulos is a Print contributing editor. He teaches about comics and illustration at the New School University and is the Programming Coordinator for SPX: The Small Press Expo. Kartalopoulos is a frequent public speaker and is currently working on a book about comics. You can read more of his pieces for Print here.