Working Small: The Role of Minicomics

Comics Theory

Hey readers! I want to apologize for the unannounced hiatus of comics theory posts–I decided that it was time for some self-actualization and devoted the past few weeks to working on a screenplay and eating all of the grilled cheese sandwiches that I could stomach. And now to the main feature.

Minicomics, defined by sticklers and wet blankets as being necessarily under 4.1’ x 5.8’ in size, arguably arose out of financial necessity. Printing comics is expensive, even if they’re just black and white photocopies. You need a lot of issues for conventions, distribution to stores and publishers, for sending to little comic book publishing houses (cough), and so on. The dollars stack up with the pages.

It’s important to note, before we move away from finances, that there’s a beautiful egalitarianism to a comic that costs 50 cents or $1. The comics are accessible to the viewer and affordable for the artist to produce.[1] This is especially good for unknown artists, who would have a much more difficult time distributing their work and getting readers to look at their stuff were it not for the appealing prices of their products. There are free minicomics, too–something rarely seen in full-size ones (artists do occasionally put out free letter size “sketchbook” compilations, but I’m not sure if these can be considered to be comics in the true, or in any, sense).

But the financial explanation is too easy, especially now that successful comics creators like Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine have begun to integrate the format into their work.[2] Their styles transcend the DIY roots of minicomics and suggest there’s something about the format itself that exists outside of its financial benefits. If the “something” isn’t financial or stylistic, the next logical step is to consider whether it has to do entirely with the format’s size. Just as broadsheets signify traditionalism by virtue of their size, so too do minicomics point the readers towards a particular means of communication and an implied historical background.

Length can be ruled out as a factor in the size discussion: there’s no predefined number of pages, though the minicomics that I’ve seen are generally around or under ten pages long. There are often no panels in minicomics; rather, the pages act as panels. Minicomics are reminiscent of flipbooks, with one action per page that moves the viewer through an experience. But unlike flipbooks, which need to be viewed quickly in order to be understood, minicomics beg the reader to slow down and play close attention to the image. Every page–every “panel”–becomes something on which the reader should focus. The transitions too are granted an importance that often disappears in regular-size comics. Why this image? Why this transition? It’s hard to zoom through a ten-page comic: every detail matters, every pen stroke begs for the readers’ attentions.

I’ve mentioned our artist Helen America’s minicomic “Horrors Celsius” in the introduction to her work. It’s deeply cerebral and detailed, asking that a great deal of attention be paid to each element. I always tend towards looking at comics art historically[3] and I’m interested in the way that Helen’s work both integrates itself and stands counter to historical surrealism. Unlike other surrealist works, “Horrors Celsius” relies more heavily on abstraction than on confusing non-sequiturs. There’s a story hidden under the strange drawings that’s easy to miss if not enough attention is paid to the material. The work asks a lot of the readers but, as with most complex art, the effort devoted to the piece pays off.

Surrealism, in theory, eschews interpretation. Its early stages depended heavily on “automatic drawing”–immediate depiction of an artist’s thoughts or emotions. It’s hard to consolidate this theory with Helen’s work since there’s something of a trajectory to her narrative. Perhaps it just appears to be surreal without necessarily conforming to theory. After all, what’s the point of comics that are entirely surreal in the historical sense of the word? Would that amount to a comic or just something like a comic?[4]

There are minicomics that truly use the medium to their benefit, but does the condensation allow for complete pieces, for the unknown artists who benefit most from the format to get out the gestalt of their style?[5] The artist gets less space in which to be forgiven for errors or missteps which, for a good creator, means that they have to work harder to create a successful story. It’s a good exercise to be sure, allowing artists to be terse and edit their work thoroughly. This is essentially the flash fiction of the comics medium (not single-panel comics, as I’ve mentioned). Single-panel comics more often than not destroy the opportunity for stories to be created, while minicomics increases the urgency with which they are told, forcing artists to eschew comics conventions the way that Helen did. It’s arguably easy to fall into the use of tropes that way; it’s an easy way out of a tight situation. But these works are where the strong creators can show their chops and where the “weaker” artists are weeded out. It’s a battle royale, man.

Size clearly matters.[6] I’m a big proponent of paying attention to the physicality of the work, the importance of holding onto a physical object. Small things have to work harder to get people to notice them.[6] Here’s the simple truth: we look at big things. We pay attention to the Empire State Building, to the Grand Canyon, to Mount Rushmore. We don’t pay attention to silverfish or to ants, even though they’re alive. We pay attention to broadsheets and newspaper funnies. Big things get attention by virtue of their size. We live in a culture that celebrates grandiosity, that rewards monumentality and eschews the tiny. We like things that are “the most,” things that are physically ambitious. It’s the American Dream to be the most, the biggest, and, implicitly, the best.

The DIY nature of minicomics challenges the notion that size correlates to quality. It focuses heavily on appealing to those who appreciate the handmade, and yet this also falls in line with tendencies towards admiring the ambitious. Even though some people bemoan commercialization, we instinctively gravitate towards the underdog. We want the person who worked hard for something small to get their due, and so while we might appreciate minicomics for their “authenticity” what we really want is to see those artists move onto bigger things, “better” things. We like to come in on the ground floor and that’s part of the draw of the format. If someone can do something great with so little, what could they do with something big? It’s undoubtedly the end-all be-all of American aspirations, an attitude that stands starkly in contrast to the DIY aesthetic.

Is it possible for unknown artists to promote their work through minicomics, or should the path be the other way around? Should they concentrate on creating larger and longer works in order to get people’s attention, even if the audience is smaller than that of minicomics? We’ll take a closer look at minicomics next week and work on addressing these questions and figuring out the role that minicomics play in the larger realm of comics.

[1] Accessibility has always been a concern in the art world, especially when “big” works are so heavily integrated into the “art/museum industrial complex.” Living in New York is a unique gift, with the amount of museums and art galleries available in the city. Not all people are so lucky. Without that access it’s hard to engage with high art, though there are certainly public works like street art that still encourage thought and conversation.[1a]
[1a] Though digital interaction has made art much more accessible, there’s something to be said about seeing art in person. Even “Guernica” doesn’t hold up online–its gargantuan size has a lot to do with the viewing experience.
[2] Tomine’s series “32 Stories” is technically a reprint of minicomics made back in ye olden days when Tomine was an unknown, but Ware put minicomics into his gigantic “Building Stories” collection.
[3] Duh, art historian.
[4] Apropos of very little, here’s something that’s not quite pizza.
[5] That word probably makes me owe at least a couple of dollars in the douchebag jar.[5a]
[5a] I think I’ve finally opened the Pandora’s box to my endless television references.
[6] Just try being 5’2” and getting a bartender to notice you.

Featured photo by Quimbys Bookstore

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