I don’t like cute. Cute is tiresome, and most cute-enthusiasts are more tiresome still. My affection for Sarah Becan’s Ouija Interview series from Shortpants Press therefore implies either a softening on my part, or considerable talent on hers. Having already read, enjoyed and reviewed Becan’s Shuteye, I like to think it’s the latter. But what then of the uncomfortable realization that I find myself charmed not only by the comic books of Shortpants Press, but indeed by Shortpants Press itself? Here, it must be noted, is a publisher that is, as far as publishers go, disarmingly and consistently cute. Proof rests alongside my copies of Ouija Interview in the form of a small promotional insert featuring a warmly retro illustration of a young lad and lass clad in winter clothes, sitting at a pond’s edge near a wee duck. The insert explains that Shortpants Press is based in Illinois and Missouri, where they produce comics, ‘zines and art prints. It closes with the kind of tagline you’re not likely to find on a Marvel Comics flyer:
Shortpants Press loves you with the passion of 1,000 white-hot stars.
Ouija Interview #1-4
(Short Pants Press)
The Shortpants Press weblog is cuter yet, featuring inviting, conversational ramblings from a kind entity which often refers to itself in the third person as, well, Shortpants Press (or, more often, just Shortpants.) The creative folks at Shortpants Press (if it’s not too cynical to concede that they are in fact individual people, and not a sentient, benevolent and self-aware publishing company) are clearly having fun, but I still did not expect much fun from Ouija Interview. In fact, my initial impression was that it was the antithesis of Shuteye; where Shuteye is a challenging series of subtly connected narratives that invite the reader to speculate and question for hours, Ouija Interview is on the surface little more than an ultra-accessible one-note gimmick, the kind of chuckle-worthy idea you might find in the denser pages of Evan Dorkin’s dizzyingly fun, stuffed-with-gags Dork comics. However, there’s more to the series than you might expect from its simple illustrated-Ouija-sessions premise. Or perhaps there’s not, but if nothing else, Ouija Interview is a damn sight more entertaining and endearing than I’d have credited without experiencing it for myself.
The title tells you all you need to know about the premise, and the format of the series is a simple one: panel-a-page conversations, one conversation per issue, with each issue taking its title from the person being contacted. The interior illustrations are essentially repeats of the same adorable, minimalist image you see on the cover, with the dialogue (the living speak through captions, the dead through speech balloons) consisting largely of mild, innocuous exchanges (“When were you born, Theo?” “1946.”) which might devolve one issue into delightfully absurd mockery (“Allah? Is he okay with you being gay… how do you have sex with your boyfriend if you’re a strawberry?”), only to sucker-punch you with something disturbing or poignant the next (or disturbing and poignant, in the case of Ouija Interview No. 4, in which two young siblings are contacted, resulting in revelations of incest and murder as well as legitimately haunting exchanges like this one: “How old were you when you died?” “Sad. Mama.”)
The gimmicky premise, the humble packaging, the minimalist illustrations and the overall cuteness of Ouija Interview serve to let the reader’s defenses down so that its moments of power are all the more surprising and upsetting. Whether you decide the series is cute and silly but also emotionally unpredictable and surprisingly touching, as I did, or just a purely humorous and frivolous comic whose crueler bits are merely darker shades of its humor, you will agree with me on one score, at least: Ouija Interview is goddamn cute.