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book review

Kramers Ergot 9

Edited by Sammy Harkham

Fantagraphics, 296 pages, $59.99

For more than a decade, editor Sammy Harkham's Kramers Ergot anthology has been a standard-bearer for the newest, best crafted and most provocative pieces in comics. The latest instalment is a phone-book-sized behemoth, featuring more than three dozen contributors. Its prickly assortment of short gags and dense longer stories all seem united by a seething anxiety, distressed by violence and preoccupied with the past. Dash Shaw's tale of Union soldiers raiding a "secession house" during the U.S. Civil War is elegant and morally murky, for instance, while underground legend Kim Deitch's flashback to a massacre of intelligent monkeys is nutty and vaudevillian. More highlights: Matthew Thurber's tricky time-warp story hilariously, ominously pits the author against his nemesis and namesake, James Thurber; Lale Westvind's keen colours and kinetic drawing charge her trippy spirit quest with earnest heavy-metal vigour; and Gabrielle Bell grounds the proceedings in reality, portraying her mother's worried purchase of a tiny house. Most emblematic is Abraham Diaz's grimy Pax Noctis, with a goofy-nosed, big-footed First World War soldier turning his rifle on himself – and it's funny! Blackened, bleary-eyed, hopeless, but grinning – call it the Kramers Ergot way.

After Nothing Comes

By Aidan Koch

Koyama Press, 112 pages, $20

The title page of After Nothing Comes refers to the contents collected within – a half-dozen pamphlets released between 2008 and 2014, still shimmering with unprecedented artistic discovery – as "zines." It's a typically clipped and unassuming label for Koch, who has become comics' foremost artist of fragments and erasure, of palimpsests and caesuras and thoughts left half-finished. "Poetic" is usually the way to characterize Koch's brand of terse phrasing, skeletal stories and fleeting images. But such shorthand fails to convey how far beyond poetry's conventions Koch often goes, harnessing portraiture, still life, dance and montage to her singular method, as well. The title of a later work, Reflections, gets closer to describing her work: unrelated pictures that somehow rhyme across panel borders, words that hover around some undefined event or emotion. Koch always zeroes in on the seemingly innocuous: a reticent scrap of conversation ("I can't stand it"); a hand tucking hair behind an ear; a fold in fabric; a fern. Using comics panels to conjoin such commonplace nothings, Koch forces readers to construct their own meanings, creating worlds on the page that remain radically, invitingly open.

Bird in a Cage

By Rebecca Roher

Conundrum Press, 112 pages, $15

Celebrating the long life of cartoonist Rebecca Roher's grandmother, Bird in a Cage encompasses nearly a century, several generations and dozens of characters. Despite such scope, the first-time author's attention remains firmly rooted in particular, telling moments. In Grandma Wylie's confused but gentle later years, Roher can still divine glimmers of the searching soul whom she knew as a child, and whose infectious love of music and family derived from leisurely, convivial summers in Ontario's cottage country (the book doubles as a singsong ode to the folksy Muskoka of old). Airily paced, Roher's storytelling captures the meandering rhythm of memory and her nimble, hazy pencil art kindly exaggerates her loved ones' quirks. At times, the results can be too indistinct – it's tough to pick out individual players, among all the family members and long-term-care residents, while the meaning ascribed fondly to some incidents can come off more generic than universal. But the details of her grandmother's life remain central and serve the author as a constant refrain: While the matriarch's own sense of identity dissolves, Roher steps in to recall her life and sing her praises.

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