by Robert Sergel
Sparkplug Comic Books
Robert Sergel’s comics always amaze me. For work that’s clearly so photo-referential, there’s still something in the form of the art that tricks my mind into thinking maybe it’s NOT photo-referential. The people and landscapes and interiors all look so real and well-proportioned, yet alive, as though there is a perfect cartoony version of our normal world out there and Sergel’s comics are more like a snapshot of that world than they are a reflection of ours. Perhaps this comes as a result of referencing a complete shot, instead of merely referencing a person in a shot, but whatever the method, I find the results truly lovely and unique.
The art is straight-up black and white with no gray and structured with clean lines of a single width. Sergel is pretty picky then when ascribing simple detail to his pages so as not to upset the overall aesthetic. The objects he creates are certainly pared-down versions of the things they represent, but there is a surprisingly significant amount of detail that comes across in everything — from close-up shots pausing on different artifacts or wide shots that take in a character’s environment — each thing is focused and patterned or creased in its own unique way. He does a great job with this and each panel on its own is solidly composed. Visually there can be a lot to his panels but certainly there’s nothing nothing jammed in there. He doesn’t go in for the overly dramatic all-black or all-white panels. Instead, the effect of his solids and patterns and perfect geometrical shapes is more like a hum that buzzes through the work which is instead broken up by ideas rather than being isolated by color.
His framing always feels very purposeful and necessary. Sergel has a great eye for this and it’s something I’ve appreciated in his work for a long time. You could read some parts as simplistic and functional when attempted by other cartoonists in other comics but I genuinely feel this sort of close-up imagery — as presented in “Up Up Down Down” from Eschew #2 for example — comes in tasteful, limited doses. More importantly, it gently guides the reader. There’s no heavy-handedness at all in these comics. Sergel creates a really smooth reading experience.
The work is primarily autobiographical, but it would be fair to call these stories dark comedies. “Sex Offenders Who Live Near Me” from Eschew #2 is a pretty good example of this. Criminal criminal criminal — oh wait is that last one familiar or what? Many of the stories contained in these books give you the kind of chuckle that comes from discomfort if it doesn’t just give you pause for thought.
Eschew #1 is totally autobiographical. Opening with “First Kiss” (a classic party scene that drives Sergel into a girl’s bedroom before sending him head-first into the nearest toilet) and closing with “Thirteen Bad Experiences Involving Water,” Eschew #1 is largely about Sergel’s youth and friendships.
Eschew #2 is more observational and experimental. It contains many different short stories about mundane things that come to mean a lot. From a dead squirrel on the highway and its ridiculous fate to the tongue-in-cheek portrait set of “Sex Offenders Who Live Near Me” to a precious irreplaceable sweatshirt, Sergel shows us things that seem inconsequential but take on larger meaning. Probably his most affecting piece is “Up Up Down Down” which trivializes a perfectly good Nintendo game. I really don’t know if I’ll ever look at Super Mario 3 the same way again.
The first issue was self-published and the second was published by Sparkplug Comic Books. You’ll find Eschew #1 (32 pages) for $4 on Sergel’s site, Eschew #2 (36 pages) for $5 on Sparkplug’s site, or both together for $7 from Sergel on his site.
– Sarah Morean