Steven #4 by Doug Allen

Somehow over the years, I’d sort of forgotten about the weekly comic, Steven. Apparently the strip ended in 1994? Fortunately, some months back, I stumbled across the interview with Doug Allen in the latest issue of But is it Comic Aht? and remembered how much I used to enjoy reading Steven in the weekly papers, and I used to have at least some of the Kitchen Sink issues that collected the strip. Now they’re all out of print and somewhat expensive and hard to come by, but I luckily found issue four for eleven bucks and grabbed it up.

This hefty issue collects eighty strips that originally ran from 1989 through 1991. For me, these are flawless comics. Exactly what I’m hoping for when I pick something up to read, funny, memorable, unique. Despite being over thirty years old, these strips, at least to me, still read as completely fresh – they haven’t seemed to have aged a day.

The very meta-comics collected in this issue are mostly centered around Steven’s efforts to fire all the other characters in his strip, because he hates them. The supporting characters are all hilarious, and their efforts to keep their jobs on the strip are wonderful (even after Steven cuts off one of the supporting character’s head). I have a special fondness for the strips featuring two comic book editors who live in a mental institution. A touch of Count Screwloose from Tooloose by Milt Gross?

Both the language of these strips, and the drawings are so much fun, I can’t believe I’d somehow forgotten about it. I feel like Doug Allen should be considered as one of the very best cartoonists. I’m looking forward to trying to track down affordable copies of the rest of his work, ASAP. I kind of can’t believe there isn’t a nice, complete collection of his comics in print or coming soon.

Talk to My Back by Yamada Murasaki

Talk to My Back collects a bunch of short comics drawn by Yamada Murasaki from 1981 to 1984 that were originally published in the Japanese alternative comics magazine, Garo. These are an unusually domestic set of mostly minimalistic pieces, centered on a young mother’s perspective as she tries to find her way, raising two daughters with a seemingly not very involved husband. The stories often focus on a very small, very normal incident, and often end right when you think things are going to get interesting. In that sense, I would say, most of the stories collected here have a vague and poetic feeling, more than a concrete arc… though a couple stories are a little more direct, and almost didactic. The kids slowly get older, the main character thinks about getting a job outside the home, the husband drifts further away, she takes a job for a couple of years, while still managing the household, her kid’s mini-problems, loses her job, decides to stay home, decides to start her own business.

Overall, I found the stories collected in the book to make for a refreshing and enjoyable read. I can’t imagine there were many comics being published in the 1980s that examined the homeworker’s complicated perspective so deeply. Even today, it’s not a very explored topic, is it?

At times, the art in these comics is great, but at other times, I found it a little too sketchy / minimal to grab me – the art occasionally seems to have the slightness of a rushed phone doodle sketch. I mostly found the uneven quality to the art fairly easy to overlook, due to the uniqueness of the subject matter, and simply pleasure of reading most of the short stories. The translation seemed to flow a lot better than your typical Ryan Holmberg translation. Holmberg also has another longish essay in the back of the book, I assume to provide some background material on the stories and on Yamada Murasaki, but I’m ashamed to admit, I never can make it past the first couple paragraphs of any of his essays before I start to fall asleep.