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Short Stories 1989-1996

(Fantagraphics Books)

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Artbabe Comics: The Art of Storytelling

“Demographically, the average comic reader/collector is 14-24 with an average household income of $50,000 a year. Research indicates these averages are skewing upwards somewhat in terms of age, and that females are becoming a more important comic book consumer.”
—taken from a market research study conducted by the ComicBook Television network

Faced with these statistics, it is no surprise that comic companies have been publishing titles strictly for the adult consumer. Whereas in years past creators emphasized action-based stories, today’s creator can emphasize any number of genres and styles. One such creator is Jessica Abel, most famous for her Artbabe comic whose work experiments with the art of storytelling. Luckily for us consumers, Fantagraphics Books has recently released Soundtrack: Short Stories 1989-1996, a collection of Abel’s early, self-published Artbabe stories.

Abel’s short fiction is akin to the relatively new genres of sudden or flash fiction. According to K.L. Storer, author of “The Exercise of Writing Sudden Fiction,” you feel that “suddenly you’re in the event, it began before you got there and you’ve no choice but to get involved or move on.” With such brevity “all the classic elements of the plot may not be in plain sight, or, truly may not be present; yet, the well-written sudden fiction piece is complete.” One particular Abel story, “3:47 PM: The Last Moment on Division Street,” is a perfect example. In only six panels, flying saucers arrive and kill all the people on Division Street. Abel thrusts readers into the story, not giving them a beginning or end, but entertainment nonetheless. I don’t know why the aliens were there, where they were going next, or if they were defeated—but I still enjoyed the surprise and emotion (particularly the panic of the ill-fated character) that the story creates.

Telling stories through music is an age-old use of the medium. However, using music in a graphic medium is a difficult task. Better then any comic I have ever read, Soundtrack incorporates music into the stories. Too often, artists just insert musical notes that float in the air to demonstrate that music is playing. Abel, on the other hand, finds innovative ways to express music in her work, both graphically and textually. “Soundtrack,” the title story of the collection, shows how music plays a vital role in a young woman’s life. Each panel except one is split horizontally. The bottom panel shows different bands playing while the top shows the woman going about her day. Abel draws the bottom panel larger as the music becomes more important. The one panel that isn’t split depicts the woman playing a guitar—the music as the total focus of her life at that moment. Abel’s most daring use of music is found in “Chronic.” In this story, she actually uses lyrics from her now-defunct band, Chronic, as the dialogue. The montage of images, lyrics, and narrative creates a disjointed but compelling story of the classic love triangle gone bad. Just like in many songs, Abel doesn’t offer a multitude of details about the characters or situation -the lyrics instead to convey the hopelessness of the situation and the despair that the characters feel.

Sometimes the simplest of ideas eludes our imagination. Such was the case as I read “Journalism,” the second chapter of Soundtrack. I had never realized that journalism could be used in the comic book format (even though newspapers have been using cartoons for the purpose for over one hundred years, if not more). Abel does more then answer the five Ws (who, where, what, when, and why); the graphic format of the comic allows Abel to show rather than tell the reader what happened. In “Camille Paglia,” Abel uses only word balloons to record a lecture given at the University of Chicago—while, in “. . . or whatever,” she uses narrative boxes to provide her own analysis of a reading given by Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, as it is occurring. The comic book format can play with time in ways that television and print journalism cannot; comic journalism can focus on many images like photojournalism, but still record the spoken word. Since Abel uses drawings instead of photographs, she interprets events as much as she records them. She can embellish, omit, or edit her subjects however she chooses. For example, she draws Elizabeth Wurtzel with big hair and vacant eyes - which, in my opinion, emphasizes her belief that Wurtzel is a flake, supported by the comments Abel makes about her.

The stories collected in Soundtrack are well worth reading. Along with those I already mentioned, satire, cultural criticism, alternative fiction, cartoonish comics, and other genres and styles fill up this collection. Abel proves that the storytelling is alive and well in comics. Though the comic market may be faltering, this is a great time to be a comic creator. Just as Marvel Comics made the leap years ago (also when the market was bad) to create a new type of superhero, today creators like Abel are leaping forward to strike a chord with today’s comic reader.

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