A few weeks ago, a package of five relatively small paperback editions arrived all at once, rubber-banded together. They were different sizes and colors. The only real unifying theme was that they were attractive and mysterious; rather than mass-produced products, they felt like objects, items with cultural currency, the way that old punk records used to. These five books make up the fall list of Portland small publisher Microcosm, and, for the first time in weeks, I was excited to take a stack of books home and tear into them.
Microcosm isn't new; it's been distributing zines, buttons, stickers, and patches for 12 years—and books for a good chunk of that time. It publishes mostly nonfiction, as prose and poetry and comic books. The only one of the fall list that gravitates toward fiction is Welcome to the Dahl House, a collection of comics by cartoonist Ken Dahl. Even then, his fiction seems to be mostly rooted in reality. At first, Dahl House reads like a collection of your standard punky comic strips, with a few tired anticommercialism rants and some prozine propaganda. They're good for an old fashioned Mad Magazine–style laugh or two—Sarge from Beetle Bailey makes an appearance as a homophobic army recruiter—but Dahl's faux–Henry Rollins earnestness more often crushes the humor to death. Things pick up when Dahl introduces the fictional Gordon Smalls, a failed, fuck-the-system young protester who's now middle-aged, with no companions other than his own self-satisfied roar. The Smalls strips almost all take the form of a how-to on alternative topics (shoplifting, getting arrested, peeing in the shower), but the palpable sadness of this man who has raged against the world until it blithely passed him by is pathetic—and therefore hilarious. Much of the book massages that same near physical discomfort, in particular a very squirmy-funny autobiographical story of Dahl's childhood dalliances with a friend, including a game called "The Baby Seal" wherein one boy would "hunt" the other's penis and make it "bleed" urine by poking it with his finger.
Two other autobiographical comics collections in Microcosm's fall list are similarly awkward, but much less satisfying. Brainfag Forever, or BFF, collects eight years of cartoonist Nate Beaty's minicomics. There are an intriguing variety of styles, from pages of photorealistic landscapes to scratchy cartoons reminiscent of Gary Panter, but the stories that Beaty tries to tell, about travel and awkward personal relationships, are profoundly uninteresting and lacking in things like conflict and depth. The interstitial bits, in which Beaty explains the stories behind the comics, are more interesting than the collected comics themselves.
Then there's Invincible Summer Volume II by Nicole J. Georges, a collection of comics, poetry, and sketches from Georges's diary. (May 10: "I woke up sad, but surrounded by love." April 26: "Tempeh scramble with avocado. Yes! My fast is over.") Georges is a member of Sister Spit, the poetry collective cofounded by Michelle Tea, which may interest Tea devotees, but the dullness of this diary, which is not livened up at all by a pathetic breakup and several personal squabbles that presumably don't make any sense unless you know Georges personally, make this book a classic example of a clichéd small-press offering: self-involved, self-important, and of no real value beyond the author's own self-esteem.
But the rest of Microcosm's fall offerings are rare and wonderful books: There's the third edition of On Subbing, the diary of a man named Dave Roche who works as a substitute special-education teacher in Portland. The daily encounters with different students—when one boy hears that Roche lived in California he asks, "How are the hookers in L.A.?"—are fascinating. Roche doesn't mock the special-ed students, some of whom are so profoundly retarded that Roche has to literally wipe their asses for them, and he doesn't turn them into dispensers of Forrest Gump–style wisdom, either. It feels like a genuine glimpse into a world that most of us never consider, and Roche's skill at preserving the dignity of the students is highly commendable; I've never read a book about mentally challenged children that felt this emotionally honest.
The final book is the least booklike of the five: Bill Daniel's Mostly True, with its turn-of-the-century Sears-catalog appearance, is a collection of essays disguised as the April 1908 issue of a magazine devoted to hobo markings. Pages are lined with antique advertisements ("Raise Giant Frogs" and "Anyone suffering from Fistula, Piles or Non-Malignant Rectal trouble is urged to write for our FREE Book") and sections of the book are devoted to photographs of hobo-chalked graffiti, in particular the work of Bozo Texino, the Michelangelo of hobo graffiti artists. Mostly True is utterly unlike anything on most bookstore shelves—a collection of news clippings both real and fake that, when put together, give the sense of a culture larger and much more vibrant than any narrative essay ever could. As with all of Microcosm's diverse stable of former zine authors and fringe poets, the reader should be grateful, and slightly bewildered, to suddenly have discovered this weird artifact from a mystifying world.