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Tabula Rasa

The Comics of Alex Major

Quay-Line, Frederick, Dynamite, and more

A Review by David Carroll

Frederick: The Many Faces of Bean Boy coverSome comedy, maybe even most of it, really doesn't stand up to a lot of analysis. Sometimes you can trace the evolution of jokes, appreciate their subtleties, convey the care with which they were built. But most jokes work by taking you by surprise, so talking about it afterwards isn't going to help much. Alex Major's comics are like that, which makes them a bit of a bugger to review, but I'll do my best.

Alex is a Sydney artist who first appeared in 1999 with Quay-Line, the sort-of-adventures of Naomi, a hotel receptionist kidnapped by a Hungarian limo driver in order to save the world (whether or not the world actually needs saving is a different matter). This lasted two issues before he started the 'spin-off' Frederick, involving a girl — Naomi again — and her three stuffed animals who end up going to school, back in time, and into various more famous comics. This lasted four issues (of which I have but three, alas) before the lure of creating with other people attracted him to Kitsune Publishing, for which he did the comic Dynamite. This one has a different girl with a robot companion, but once again the world is in peril. In the meanwhile, his old self-publishing venture Crash Comics reappeared one more time with a 24-hour comic, in conjunction with Daniel MacGregor, and he also did a strip called Goats on Ice.

Let's do this one at a time.

The first issue of Frederick is subtitled 'Comics the Way Your Grandma Used to Make'em', a reference to the fact it's really a collection of ye olde three panel strips. It's a demanding format, requiring a steady stream of punch-lines, which combined with the fact that it's presented in a regular comicbook (I don't believe they were ever printed separately) creates a strange staccato experience. It is also a format that suits Alex really well. I'll at least try to explain. To me the quintessential moment in any of these strips is when nothing happens — a pure reaction shot. In one of the comics Frederick himself (one of the stuffed toys) is reading his favourite strip Bean Boy, which consists entirely of Bean Boy maintaining the same expression over and over again, with nothing else at all. Frederick is laughing hard. This is not just whacky post-modernism, it shows quite a bit of self-understanding. Of course, there is rather more to it than that, so we also have headbanging ladybugs, Brittney Spears (the lead singer of sell-out SKA band 12 Bats Eat Muffins that is), and a television that tries to chat up Namoi. None of it makes sense, but you read it with a growing sense of both amusement and pure 'what the fuck!' Look twice and the whole thing evaporates. Look again and the absurdity of it all is wonderful.

Not all of it works like that, admittedly. There are some actual jokes here and there (the DOS one was good), and the whole prehistoric sequence is resolved (sort of) in a full-page colour insert. And with so many individual strips, some of them just don't work at all. Though I think if I knew who Murray Walker was I'd be a bit better off.

A work of explanation is needed about the different issues, if you're hunting them down. None of them have numbers — the first was published at normal comic size, whereas the second (subtitled 'it's where goats come from') is actually a reprint of half of the first. The last issue ('The many faces of Bean Boy') is a compilation of unpublished strips and various things to round it all out, which perhaps needs the earlier work to appreciate. We do get a drawing of Naomi as a mermaid, by Jozef Szekeres (and her breasts are very nice, so that's all right then). There is also Frederick: Go Team, which contains new material plus reprints from the first issue, but is extremely difficult to find. If anybody has a spare copy, give me a call...

Quay-Line#1 coverBacking up a bit, we come to Alex's first comic, Quay-Line. This is actually my favourite of the titles, and although it's a little rougher than some of the subsequent work, it's all part of the charm. I think the most accurate word for this is 'cheeky'. There's lots of anarchy, sex, daring escapes, and not-so-subtle references to the evils of modern living, all wrapped around a plot that occasionally threatens to be coherent. Then with number two it starts getting weird... in particular the origin story for Poogie, evil hand-puppet, who goes on to be one of the main characters in Frederick.

The comic shares a lot of the same sensibilities as Frederick, but in a more streamlined fashion because it isn't constrained to the strip format. Perhaps the weakest thing is the art, which is often crowded and messy, but this improves over the strip. Nonetheless, it's a bit disconcerting in comparison to the much smoother Frederick (mainly because he quickly mastered various shading techniques, it seems). Issue two did promise an issue 3, sub-titled 'A True Story' — which has got to be a worry — but it never eventuated. I don't think Alex is still selling the two that did appear, but they're very much worth finding if you can.

Dynamite is a return to the more usual comic-strip format, with a much cleaner look than Quay-Line. Perhaps too clean, since it all seems a bit sparse, with no shading and lots of white space. It seems to affect the plot as well, as it never reaches the level of anarchy of Quay-Line, though does have more than a few of those moments of incredulity that seem to be Alex's trade-mark. There's also a couple of nice references back to the older work, from the Frederick poster to the rather more subtle reappearance of Gore. It's worth getting, but not the best. It was only ever meant to be a one-off, to launch Kitsune Publishing, and there is talk of a reissue, perhaps with slightly jazzed up artwork. Submission Story cover

The other comic Alex has put out is the strange and wonderful Submission Story Done in a 24hr Period — a surprisingly accurate title. Apparently it was indeed used to showcase his talents for work with an animation studio, and the comic follows the travails of a young man in just such a situation. Under the tutelage of two mysterious published cartoonists (as Aaron Burgess said in his recent review, it's fun trying to work out if these are real people, and who), Rojam steels himself to work for an American conglomerate, haunted by Rupert Murdoch in a hat. It forms a double with Daniel MacGregor's Hit and Run (also a 24 hour comic, more or less — why do these people do this to themselves?), and is finished off with a great Szekeres 'poster'. Good stuff.

There is more work as well, mostly the on-line strip Goats on Ice which is now absent from the cut back That was back to a similar format as Frederick and, while also a bit hit and miss, showed the same flare for the non-obvious with a very different subject matter — including, of course, an ice-fishing goat.

Is there some sort of conclusion we can make out of all this? That seems to be about three years work from Alex, which included setting up his own company, Crash Comics, spruiking them through America, and getting at least his foot into the big league. He's also made his presence felt on the various Australian comic forums, and done a good job at the cons. So maybe it's hard to explain the comics, but seeing a whole lot of hard work paying off provides a more obvious moral, and is great to see.

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