This week, Cold Cube Press, a risograph outfit run by Aidan Fitzgerald and Michael Heck, launches two summer-colored collections of comics, both bizarre and risky in their own way, both shining with pages of brilliance, and both ideal for reading in a slightly dreamy state on a sun-dappled hillock.
Portland-based drawer Lindsay Anne Watson splits her messy-pretty and perfect-bound Well at the Very Least into three sections, each prefaced by a single weird-sad or funny-sad comic. The first section, "Stop," drops us into a blue pool where nearly identical women (though their gender expression is ambiguous) lounge around and try to support each other during a vague crisis in their relationship. The lightly surreal mumblecore dialogue that characterizes their exchange remains consistent throughout, though the background colors shift from cool blue to brighter, warmer, and more chaotic reds, yellows, and oranges.
Judging by all the dream logic, the doubling of selves, and the moon-eyed, moon-faced characters that dominate Watson's collection, she seems mostly concerned with the cyclical nature of time and the multitudes we all contain. There's not much in the way of resolution in these worlds, and the fragmented selves never gather into a whole, but intimate if passing moments of solidarity offer some consolation.
This idea is most divinely if bleakly expressed on the page you see above, a page I want to rip out of the book, frame, and hang on my wall for at least the rest of my 30s. I'm not the only one who, like this last face, feels emotionally stabilized by the constancy of the world's badness, right?
Far more abstract is Jason T. Miles's Lightning Snake, featuring a one-eyed, electric phallic symbol (I think) bolting through the grass. The dizzying collections of shapes are not easy to parse, and there is almost no text. It's not even clear from the cover who the artist is, and the back cover identifies him only as "JTMM," but he's a longtime local experimental cartoonist, Fantagraphics employee, and zine slinger.
The titular reptile sizzle-slithers through amoeba-shaped panels fused together into blob-like grids. At first glance, the pages look like those magic eye posters—but after a few seconds, your eyes adjust and you discover a story. Lightning Snake is in love with Cousin Thunder, but the cousin is nowhere to be found. As Lightning Snake becomes increasingly emotionally lost, the backgrounds become increasingly abstract until they blend with the panels to form nearly formless splash pages. A pretty simple, sort of incestuous or masturbatory story about failing to find love.
In a semi-serious notes section at the back of the book, Miles claims the character was perhaps unconsciously inspired by famous psychoanalyst Carl Jung's conversation about mandala symbols with his patient "Miss X," whose bad drawing of a lightning bolt (that ended up looking like a snake) helped Jung help her "liberate" herself. Miles says he doesn't remember reading about Jung and Miss X's conversation before drawing the Lightning Snake comics, but maybe he consciously did and his claim that he unconsciously didn't is a Jungian joke?
Whatever the case, the Jungian/gender analysis of this thing yields little fruit and is kind of beside the point. The idea of liberation via bad drawing, however, is useful.
The book's strength lies in the accumulation of emotion Miles creates with abstractions and "bad" drawings of a character that's essentially a dick joke. One page tells a deceptively simple story of our hero just kind of moving through grass for a few panels before hatch marks consume him in darkness. But the image of grass turning into hatch marks and then the hatch marks consuming Lightning Snake's shape so perfectly reflects the overall book's move from fairly concrete representation to pure abstraction that it's hard not to see the page as a sophisticated metaphor for Miles's whole project. The narrative comic versus the art comic is a false distinction—you can accomplish the former using the tools of the latter. It's like a modernist poem: Though it seems abstract, every page is showing you how to read it.
Even if these two books are a little out-there for the casual comics reader, the level of craftsmanship on display here exceeds anything Cold Cube has published before. These are bigger, bolder, more ambitious works than I've seen the press take on before, and it will be interesting to see what they come out with next.