Satisfactory Comics 6

Satisfactory Comics #6 by Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe (2005). 28p., b+w, 5.5″ x 8.5″, with a mini-mini (18p., 2.75″ X 2″) and 8 cards (2.75″ x 2.25″). $3.50ppd from Isaac.Cates AT liu.edu

Isaac Cates and Mike Wenthe love to collaborate and experiment. They do all their work together and often they include ideas, art, stories, or any random old thing from numerous other people. Their collaboration goes back some years (Satisfactory Comics #1 is dated December 2001) and as of a few months ago (whoops, sorry Isaac, these were sitting on my shelf for a long time) this is their most recent mini-comic. Isaac sent me a whole slew of comics, but I’m just gonna write about this one, as it is the most interesting and refined of them (there is a clear progression of improvement in skill over the course of the series).

Right from the beginning this is an interesting work. Similar to the Chris Ware edited McSweeney’s comics anthology, this comic has pockets on the cover with smaller books hidden within (in McSweeney’s case those ended up being my favorite part of the anthology). In this case, the one pocket holds a very tiny mini-comic adapting a sonnet by Irish poet Ciaran Carson (whom I’m only familiar with from his very interesting novel Shamrock Tea) called “Fear.” Each of the fourteen pages (minus the front cover and inside front) contains one image and one line from the sonnet. This little comic has the cleanest (and probably the best) art I’ve seen from Isaac and Mike. It’s all very simple and assured. One great image has a coffee cup in the foreground with the narrator in the background most cropped off. His hand hovers over the cup, wavey lines let us know the hand is shaking. The face goes off the page, but we see a down turned mouth and lines under the eyes that add to the uneasiness of the narrator.

The second pocket holds eight small cards that feature a single panel on each side. The reader is meant to shuffle the cards and lay them out in a row, a combinatorial narrative. The story involves a young novice seeking wisdom, an old master, a temple in the mountains, and some animal parables. The zen-like content lends itself to the non-continuous narrative that is formed by the various permutations of the cards. The art is also some of their best (even at such a small size). An enjoyable experiment.

The comic itself features a number of short stories of varying quality. The first two short stories are part of a “map jam” in process that involves different creators making comics to “fill in” the places on a fictional map. I can’t say I found either of much interest, it didn’t help that they featured some high fantasy elements such as little gnomes/dwarves riding in a goose-shaped glider.

The second story is an autobiographical tale about Isaac’s obsession with playing the computer game Civilization and how he “beat the game” (got himself to stop playing). It’s a text heavy comic with the text narrating (in the first person) the story and the images providing accompaniment and elaboration. It is a really good example of an autobio-essay comic. I’m not much of a video game player, but I remember getting really into Civilization when a college friend had it on his computer.

They follow-up this story with a formal experiment, their version of a comics sestina. Unlike Matt Madden’s comics sestina, which permutates identical panels at the end of each strip, Isaac and Mike permutate the last word in each six panel page. It’s a much less constraining form than Madden’s (since the image are not permutated) and more like a poetic sestina. The story itself is a detective tale that revolves around some intellectual jokes. In contrast to the artwork in the mini-minis mentioned above, the art here often seems too crowded, to its detriment.

The last comic in the issue is an adaption of a chapter from the book of Job (done for the Flaming Fire Illustrated Bible). The illustrations are quite successful, more so than the previous story. I wonder if it relates to the predominance of characters in the sestina–I’m not a fan of the style they use for characters (the heads seem too big, and often lack expression). There are a number of interesting sequences here, such as a four panel sequence of men facing off against monsters (this chapter being about “Leviathan”, the monster is the main focus) which starts with a kind of Judge Dredd/Alien face-off and then progress backwards in time to a knight and dragon, a kind of mesopotamian looking man and monster, and a cave painting bowman and monster. The first two panels of the comic show a great care and simplicity in execution: a hand holding up a fishhook, two hands either putting in or pull out the hook from a sea crustacean of some sort. The hands are quite real and the backgrounds are left mostly blank. When Isaac and Mike use this pared down style, sadly not as often as one would hope, their comics really shine.

Regardless of some of the weaker stories in this collection, it’s worth getting a copy (contact Issac at the above email address and you can pay by PayPal) for the successful comics and the experiments. While you’re talking to him get him to send you a copy of their mini-comic comics essay “Treatise on the Jam” which discusses collaboration, jams, and constraint (“Play requires rules; arbitrary constraints will keep you aware of the medium’s inherent constraints.”).