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Comics Works: Kramer’s Ergot 8

Kramer’s Ergot 8, the latest volume in artist/editor Sammy Harkham’s anthology series, collects works from high-profile comics figures such as Gary Panter, Kevin Huizenga, and Gabrielle Bell. Many of the book’s contributors would appear equally at home in books like the annual Best American Comics anthology or other primers for casual comics fans. But Kramer’s 8, out now from PictureBox, is stranger than the sum of its parts.

Earlier volumes of Kramer’s have had a sprawling, free form sensibility, crammed with content from cover to cover with little to orient readers. Kramer’s 8 is a more obviously curated work. In an interview with Harkham, comics writer Sean T. Collins suggested-semi-seriously–that “the fact that it’s a Kramers with a typewritten table of contents at the beginning is somehow the Rosetta stone of the entire project.” Harkham replied by noting that it’s the first Kramer’s with white endpapers too. In other words, the anthology invites us to look for Harkham’s method in selecting and placing its pieces, while being (probably, partially) a product of instinct and also being (probably, partially) designed to send readers in circles.

(The whole Collins-Harkham interview is required reading for those who have finished Kramer’s 8, and vexing in its own right. Harkham alludes to goals and wants he had for the anthology while carefully avoiding any real explication. The most specific he gets is having “wanted a certain uptight energy, a certain rigidness to the work .”)

Kramer’s 8 begins with a couple of conspicuously non-comics contributions: first, a series of one or two page illustrations from fine artist Robert Beatty, and then a prose introduction of uncertain seriousness from Nation of Ulysses vet Ian Svenonius. As its coda, the book features more than thirty pages of ’70s smut comic Oh, Wicked Wanda! The Wanda pages read like the biggest aberration in Kramer’s 8. The comic’s a legit low culture relic, full of cheesecake sexuality and bad jokes. And yet Kramer’s 8 is punctuated by graphic sex and violence throughout, and not always at distinct moments.

Doing justice to each entry in the latest Kramer’s would require more posts than just this one, but C.F.’s “Warm Genetic House-Test Pattern” and Harkham’s own “A Husband and a Wife” typify the project, as much as two pieces can. (The Rumpus’s review of Kramer’s 8 features scenes from these pieces, as well as every other entry in the anthology.) C.F. (Christopher Forgues), one of several previous Kramer’s contributors, is perhaps best known for his series of Power Mastrs comics, which feature the same shaky, clear line style he uses in Kramer’s 8. “Warm Genetic House-Test Pattern” begins with the tension building and slow reveals of a horror story, then lands somewhere between erotica and outright horror with a scene of probable sexual assault, before closing with a series of uncomfortable closeups and a panel of psychedelic abstraction.

Like C.F.’s entry, Harkham’s nearly wordless “A Husband and a Wife” balances grotesquery, sexuality, and sudden violence. Harkham’s line has loosened over the years, from his taught, tight lifework in comics such as Crickets #1 (viewable in its entirety at What Things Do) to the more recent Crickets #3. His contribution to Kramer’s 8 shares the preoccupation with staging action seen in Crickets #1 (scroll down, it’s excellent, I’ll wait!) to darker places, as Harkham depicts the marital discord and bodily mutations of a wealthy landowner. His line in these pages is the loosest its ever been–unlike the steady rhythms and spring-coil tension of his earlier stuff, “A Husband and a Wife” is sprawling, unstable, and has a more humanlike pulse.

Gabrielle Bell’s “Cody” (one of only two pieces from female contributors) is similar to Harkham’s in that its rewards will be greatest for readers already acquainted with her work. Bell tells “Cody,” a short slice of working-class California noir, in her typical thick, wavy lines, fixing the story to a six panel grid. This is the same style, more or less, that Bell uses for her more muted, semi-autobiographical work, and to read her impose the format on a crime story is both a jolt and a treat.

Frank Santoro and Dash Shaw’s hypnotic collab comic “Childhood Predators” follows Bell’s story. “Childhood Predators” is another crime story of sorts, told from the POV of a police officer who impersonates children online in order to snare sexual predators. The story moves forward in vaporous purples, reds, and yellows, with many panels divided internally by rows of faint horizontal lines. Perhaps because of this, and because of Santoro’s ongoing series of lessons about page composition at The Comics Journal, the Santoro-Shaw piece reads more like a formal experiment than other entries in Kramer’s 8. It also reads like a piece that might have been more effective in a different context, arriving after a few other stories that juxtapose matter-of-fact narration and disturbing content.

As Harkham notes in his talk with Collins, Kramer’s Ergot 8 has arrived more than a decade after the start of comics “being embraced by the mainstream and by the wider book culture and art culture . . . being presented more and more like literature in the way that they’re packaged,” and the start of a market for comics (however tenuous) that can support anthologies like the Best American Comics series (also good! Just very different). One achievement of Kramer’s 8, with that in mind, is that it reads like an object alien to any culture but the culture of comics. The book reads as if Harkham is determined to annex a place for transgressive material within comics’ still relatively recent zone of respectability, or take the form to someplace else entirely.

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