Friday, 20 August 2010

Review: The Comics of Sam Spina (self-published, 2010)

How many comics’ “about the author” sections can you think of that feature their creator being carried by an anthropomorphic hammerhead shark? I can think of just one: Sharker The Forgotten:  The Story of Sean Kerr by Sam Spina, one of the many charming (and just a little bit bizarre) mini-comics the Denver-based cartoonist sent our way recently.

Spina seems to be a creator who desires to learn through experience, and as such, his work is considerably varied, both in terms of the content of his comics and the tools with which he creates them. Whilst Sharker, Spinadoodles: The First Year, Hoodle Origins and Fresh to Death may have little in common, they are united by a sense of creative excitement and the desire to move forward as a cartoonist.

Nowhere is this desire reflected more clearly than in Spinadoodles: The First Year, an annum-spanning collection of Spina’s daily autobio comics. Regular readers will know that I have a mixed-relationship with autobiographical strips, but his candid admission that James Kochalka’s American Elf is his direct inspiration and motivation for starting his own comic is so disarming as to allow me to put my preconceptions to one side.

This honesty extends to the reverse of the book, where The Comics Journal’s Rob Clough is quoted: “Spina doesn’t transcend his influences, reducing these comics to pleasant but utterly disposable reading”. Whilst I don’t disagree, Spina’s acceptance of his criticism allows for the true nature of the work to become less obscure, namely the benefit that is has to its creator. For some, a daily autobio strip is a creative investment, and the gradual improvement that this dedicated process brings to their creator’s overall illustration and storytelling skills is worthwhile.

In Spina’s case, the result of this practice can be seen in comics like Sharker and Fresh to Death. Starting like any self respecting origin story of a half-man half-fish hybrid would, Sharker begins with a deadly Jaws-alike getting struck by lightning.  Essentially, it’s a story of a less-than-super regular guy who merges with a glowing shark following a freak boating accident, becoming a less-than-super shark-guy. All is not lost though, as one ability he does possess is being able to communicate with his sidekick, Shrimper, with whom he bands together, setting forth on a mission to reunite Sharker with his wife back on land.

As is obvious, ludicrousness lies at the heart of this comic, and Spina really goes wild, smashing together the farcical concept with purposely mundane dialogue for comic effect. It’s also worth nothing that the comic comes with the equivalent of a CD’s hidden track: a tiny bonus comic inserted into the inside back cover, which is pretty neat.  Also there’s a lobster character named “Sergeant Bisk”, which is a reason to buy a comic if ever I’ve heard one.

Ironically, the most fully-formed of Spina’s works also happens to be the shortest. Much subtler in tone than Sharker is Fresh to Death, remarkably well-paced vignette about two moronic poseurs on the way to see an underground DJ play after work. Longer than it is tall, each page contains two uniformly-spaced panels, a simplified format that allows the creator to best illustrate his potential as a cartoonist. Using this limited space effectively, he shows his adeptness at creating a strong sense of time and movement. Whereas the absurdity of Sharker made it necessary to have a lot of expositional dialogue, here characters are presented more naturally, as obnoxious as their affectations may be. A lot has been said in reviews regarding the influence Kochalka has had on his work, but here I detect more than a little of Jim Mahfood's hand in his work, too.

Ultimately, every cartoonist starts out wanting to make comics because they've been inspired by someone else. The only person above this was the pioneer who first smeared their own faeces on a cave wall to chronicle having saber-toothed tiger for dinner. Spina is the kind of guy who is into getting his hands dirty, taking inspiration from his favourite creators on the way to forging his own style. I highly recommend heading over to his blog, where you'll be able to see some genuinely awesome illustrations (I really enjoy his work with colour) as well as up-to-date diary entries and to buy some of his work.


1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this review. I've been a Sam Spina fan for awhile and own a bunch of his zines. This is the first review that I feel has done his work justice! Sam is a humble, authentic artist and I've enjoyed sharing in his growth as a cartoonist. Plus, he just makes me smile every day. Looking forward to reading your other articles!