I received the sixth installment of the impressively eclectic zine Irene an embarrassingly long time ago. There is no real excuse for why it has taken me so long to get around to writing it up, but if we’re removing my inability to comprehend the passing of time from the equation, the reason is that it’s simply a lot to take in, bridging almost every genre in comics with representation from every continent on the planet, a fact co-founder Andy Warner casually told me in the e-mail where he offered a copy. Irene’s previous installments were deep, too, but something has changed since the last time I checked in with Irene. Whether because of the suddenly globe spanning creative roster or because of a desire to stir things up, Irene‘s previously bio and journalistic focus has gone meta and abstract, the shorts collected in issue six closer in style and philosophy to early ’90s comix than the web-gone-print feel the zine had before. Admittedly, the predecessors to issue six were more easily digestible and not all of this issue’s experiments succeed, but there is something to be said for its remarkable ambition and how much more time your brain needs to handle it.
Fittingly, the newest issue begins with Marta Chudolinska’s “Genesis,” a Beckett-like vignette where two skeletons debate the meaning of life after being returned to it through the bodily waste of two similarly philosophical aliens. Chudolinska’s style seems to involve making cut-outs rather than simply drawing, so the skeletons look like construction paper Halloween decorations, containing more 3D depth than a simple drawing but also somehow cute and childish, making for a clever juxtaposition with their grad school conversation. Previous Irenes had more consistent style, but “Genesis” makes it immediately clear that this issue focuses on stylistic hybrids, grand ideas jutting up against crass cartoons themselves rubbing up against personal memoirs.
Irene #6’s best moments are the comics that can seamlessly connect all these conflicting aesthetics, like Luke Howard’s “You Come to a Strange Town” strips. Howard has a deceptively simple style, light pencils in the vein of New Yorker cartoons depicting dadaist jokes, like a lo-fi take on Paul Kirchner’s “The Bus” series. “You Come to a Strange Town” is bizarre but accessible, the style somewhat abstract but still utterly clear, singlehandedly achieving a balance the rest of the zine reaches for but struggles to maintain. Ditto Dakota McFadzean’s “Good Find,” where McFadzean’s cartoonish body horror character designs are used in service of a coming of age story, featuring two kids exploring a seemingly abandoned house, only to get chased off by a mutant plant in a birdcage.
Where Irene stumbles the hardest are in the stories that step out of the middle of the spectrum and extend too far in one direction or another. Some “chapters” of the collection are just sketches, or experimental mixed media fragments that would perhaps function better as interstitial pieces rather than blocks between more straightforward material. Similarly, Andy Warner’s “An Unravelling” is a typically strong visual short from Warner that has a clumsy topical memoir narrative, merging Warner’s travel experiences in Syria with random thoughts on that country’s ongoing strife, ending with meta insertions of a story Warner worked on but abandoned. It’s by no means a bad work, but its lack of focus is exacerbated by it being sandwiched between two more abstract segments.
Lucy Bellwood’s “Salt Soap” is an equally fragmented memoir work that works better, focusing on the memories and meaning we impart on everyday objects that are connected to our relationships. In her story, it’s the titular salt soap, an indulgent gift from an unfaithful lover who she has otherwise moved past. Bellwood’s linework is soft but confident, with more open space than the other “realistic” stylists in Irene, which enables her to tell her story in a cleverly abstract way, focusing in on the objects themselves to convey deeper meaning than the panels where humans interact. Having recently gone through an experience like Bellwood’s, the story struck a chord with me, not because what it says is entirely unique, but her communication of it through totems and unusual emphasis is.
I felt similarly about Ben Passmore’s “It’s Not About You,” a story that provides an artful twist on identity discourse, utilizing surrealist imagery to work out an internal conflict over how we project our anxiety onto other people, lacking sympathy for their problems because we can’t get over our own. Passmore consciously begins the story as a kind of self-centered debate, one character going on an internal monologue about personal pronouns in a dreamed up nonjudgmental space where a zen monk is perched on a mountain top, only to transform into a hungry insect when the whining climaxes. Like a lot of epiphanies, the story’s “message” is derived from anxious terror, a calming realization occurring not because of easy logic but because illogical anxiety reached a crescendo and there is something perfect about it being personified with a monk-turned-mantis.
Irene #6 may have been a harder installment to get through than the predecessors I enjoyed so much, but just as good zines should expose you to new favorites and startling concepts, they should also challenge you, keeping the boring comfort of stability at bay. I don’t know how much more ambitious Irene can get after releasing the first comics anthology to feature contributors from every continent, showcasing stories from just as many genres, but I remain hooked on the zine and inspired by its willingness to try a little bit of everything.
You can order Irene #6 now for $15.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover