Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Intangible Perplexity
by Owen Harris

Anyone who has ever peeked in on the epic art sharing threads over at the Comics Journal message board will recognize Harris' work. This is a very pure form of gag cartooning, a joke told in three or four beats, with the page's geography -- the time it takes for the reader to scan the page -- used to approximate comic timing. Extremely basic but also, when done well, extremely satisfying.

The two characters in the strips are recognizable to anyone who has ever seen an old episode of Kung Fu or, for that matter, Kill Bill: the wizened Asian zen master and the obsequious disciple. The only difference here is that the wizened master is something of an asshole and the disciple is clueless, although both exaggerate their negative qualities to annoy the other. You get the idea, reading these strips, that the characters are trapped in some sort of Beckett-inspired netherworld, waiting for the proverbial zen enlightenment which will never arrive -- hence the petty squabbling. There is something zen-like in the act of waiting for something which will never arrive, I suppose, and much of the master's exasperation seems to stem from the fact that the disciple refuses to learn that the journey, in this instance, is the goal. Either that or he just really is an asshole who gets off on making his companion miserable.

The book in which the strips have been presented doesn't even seem to have a price or any printing details, indicating an extremely small audience. While he's certainly not the world's greatest cartoonist, Harris has exactly enough skill in these strips to pull off the effect he's going for: the sparse, clean-line layouts keep everything at a pleasingly simple level. There is very little in the way of illustrative filigree to distract from the point of the strips, which are Harris' loveley off-key jokes. They are a marvel of economy insomuch as they know exactly what they need to do and how much effort to expend in order to accomplish it. Making a virtue of your limitations is one of the most difficult lessons for any cartoonist to learn -- these are obviously very primitive strips, but they work because that is exactly what they are supposed to be.

Interested parties should drop in here to see about ordering a copy, or just checking out more of Harris' work.

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