I hardly think I’m making news here by informing all you good readers that the economic landscape for small press comics and self-publishers is absolutely brutal right now — and by that I mean even more brutal than usual — but there are still plenty of people making a go of it by means of every distribution and financing mechanism you can think of, the most popular being crowd-funding and online serialization. It’s no stretch to say that some of the most talked-about comics of the so-called “pandemic era” have been instagram comics, and that platforms such as Kickstarter have afforded many a cartoonist the ability to have their work see print even when their own bank accounts were hovering near rock bottom. There are, however, other less-utilized means of hustling up the money necessary to produce a comic, and one that I’m frankly surprised isn’t utilized more often in the local arts grant — which brings us to the book under our metaphorical lens today, Spiny Orb Weaver #1.
Edited by Neil Brideau and published under the auspices of his Radiator Comics imprint, this new series was funded by The Ellies, a Miami-based visual arts award, and as such the idea behind it is to promote the burgeoning South Florida cartooning scene — but Brideau has found an ingenious way of expanding his talent pool without stepping outside the bounds of his tight-by-design remit, to wit : each issue will feature a cover and lead story by a local artist, followed by an interview with them, and then the final few pages are devoted to a memoir-based “backup strip” by someone who used to call the area home but has since moved on. These are, then, all South Florida comics — even the ones made by cartoonists who don’t live there. Heck, even the title of the publication has a local resonance, the Spiny Orb Weaver being the name of a spider native to the region.
The spotlight of this first issue falls squarely on a name that’s new to me, Miss Jaws (or Jessica Garcia, as her birth certificate would have it), and while her story’s central trope of a highly social pet (in this case Max, the dog, even talks) helping his owner, DJ, overcome her own social anxiety and connect with her neighbors is an admittedly obvious one, it’s presented in an interesting and agreeable enough manner to make even a cynic like myself find the whole thing reasonably compelling. This is largely down to a combination of factors, most notable among them being that Miss Jaws writes an incredibly authentic protagonist, but let’s be honest : the theme of personal isolation in a crowded city is eminently relatable at present, to the point where even the most social of butterflies probably has felt a little bit of what the ostensible heroine of this strip does. Points, then, for timeliness, for solid scripting, and for eschewing an easy, saccharine take on complex psychological subject matter in favor of a far more subtle, considered, and naturalistic approach. I liked the story, and I really liked the art : Miss Jaws utilizes every page all the way to the margins and infuses her fundamentally solid figure drawing with a notable degree of personality by means of well-chosen facial expression and body language “cues,” then tops it all off with expert gray-tone usage that really captures and sustains a specific mood from start to finish.
What I found perhaps even more interesting, though, was Brideau’s interview with the artist, which handily covers the basics for Miss Jaws “newbies” like myself, but then goes the extra mile by delving into her process, sure, but more crucially and substantively her artistic goals, ideals, and concerns, giving readers a full picture of an artist with a both a clear purpose and a distinct methodology by which she seeks to communicate it. The next comic I see with her name on it or in it is one that I’ll be buying immediately, as she is every bit the proverbial “talent to watch.”
All of which brings us, finally, to Tana Oshima, a cartoonist who needs no introduction to readers of this site, as I’ve been doing my damndest to champion her work to anyone willing to listen for the last couple of years now. Her short “comic essay” is densely multi-faceted, as is her custom, offering a rumination not just on her time in Miami, but on the concept of what’s loosely defined as “paradise” in a more general sense. Even as a creature of northern climes born and bred I was taken aback by the wistful and contemplative tone of this one, and of course Oshima’s trademark page layouts (four panels with text blocks above static images) are as integral to the overall mood of her work as they are to its pace — Dostoevsky is a major influence on her storytelling, and she’s emerging as comics’ nearest equivalent to him, which I assure you is no exaggeration even if it sounds like one.
What we’ve got here in total, then, is not only a very well-done anthology comic, but one that manages to balance universal themes with those specifically centered around, and bearing the imprimatur of, the atmosphere, flavor, culture, and ethos of a specific part of the world. It’s of South Florida, to be sure, but not necessarily chained to it — but by “going local,” as it were, and financing his ‘zine by means of local patronage, Neil Brideau isn’t just doing the cartooning scene in his area “a solid,” he’s showing one more way forward for comics in general.
Spiny Orb Weaver #1 is available for $10.00 from the Radiator Comics website at https://www.radiatorcomics.com/shop/minicomics/spiny-orb-weaver-no-1/
Review wrist check – Farer Universal “Stanhope” riding a Hirsch “George” brown leather strap from their “Performance” series.