Kramer's Ergot 7 is the latest in a series of high-end comics anthologies that's been praised by Time magazine as "comix' premier showcase for new talent."
At 16-by-21 inches, it's about the size of an outstretched broadsheet newspaper. But because it's hard-covered and 96 pages long, it's bulky and, some say, inconvenient to read. Add a cover price of $125 and you've got unending debate about everything from where to store the thing to whether its publisher, Oakland, Calif.-based Buenaventura Press, set the price to bait collectors. Online, in KE7 reviews, the disputes rage in reader comments.
But as Bill Boichel -- artist, advisory board member of the Center for Cartoon Studies and owner of Squirrel Hill's The Copacetic Comics Company -- explains: That's kind of the idea.
Boichel says KE7 is meant to make us rethink comics. "It's a throwback," he says -- a way to give comic artists the kind of spatial freedom they had in early 20th-century. Back then, comics like Little Nemo in Slumberland would encompass an entire page -- sometimes several pages -- of the New York Herald or William Randolph Hearst's New York American. Comics were designed "to take up your peripheral vision," Boichel says, and to tell an entire, compelling story in words and pictures. If reviving that ideal sparks controversy, he says, then so be it.
KE7 is touring 10 U.S cities, including Pittsburgh; a Dec. 4 event at Brillobox also features wares from comic artists and dealers from across the region. The cities were selected for their significance in the world of "art comics" -- not mainstream superhero titles like Batman and X-Men, but rather more esoteric and creative work.
Among KE7's 59 contributors, Shary Boyle's "Grow Old" is a fascinating if nonlinear meditation on life, death, how elephants bury their dead and the ways humans attempt to mask despair. Ted May's "Cradle of Frankenstein" is a weird compendium of allusions to fictional figures, news events and celebrity-killers. The Simpsons creator Matt Groening contributes the hilarious one-page "Life in Heaven." Another offering depicts flying angels discussing simple multiplication before shooting M16s at a giant diaper-wearing antelope.
Why bring KE7 to Pittsburgh? Sammy Harkhem, KE7's founding editor, cites alliances and an interest in the city. "For sure [Copacetic Comics] was a big reason for our coming to Pittsburgh." He says Boichel has been a huge supporter of the books Harkhem feels are worth championing. Moreover, says Harkhem, "Pittsburgh is home to one of the best cartoonists working, Frank Santoro." In 2007, Santoro's graphic novel Storeyville was re-released by Picturebox to critical acclaim. Santoro is KE7's lone Pittsburgh-based contributor (though PaperRad -- an art collective with roots at Carnegie Mellon University -- is also represented).
Harkhem adds: "Of course, George Romero is somewhere in the area, so for sure that makes it one of the most important places in the world!"
For local comics folks, the KE7 visit is a welcome nod to the scene. "I'm glad Alvin [Buenaventura, founder of Buenaventura Press] is taking care of the 'little guys' with this book tour," says Curt Gettman, publisher of Pittsburgh-based comics anthology Unicorn Mountain. While Buenaventura may be able to sell more copies of KE7 through Amazon.com or Borders, says Gettman, "Alvin obviously realizes the importance of shops like Copacetic and people like [Boichel] who built the independent comic business -- guys who do what they do simply because they love it."
Which may be a sign of times to come.
"Within the comics industry there is a lot of interest in the future of the medium as the standard format of a comic book seems less and less ideal," says Pittsburgh-based Jim Rugg, an established comics artist whose work has appeared in DC Comics and Marvel.
Rugg says comics are "no longer a cheap format to present throwaway, escapist entertainment." The rise of the Internet and the success of the graphic novel have changed the landscape. "As comics become less and less mass media, I think it's possible that they will exist more as art objects ... rather than the pop-culture item we grew up with," he says. "By returning to the roots of American comics, with this size and format, I wonder if [KE7] is both a celebration and a memorial to a bygone format."
The Kramer's Ergot 7 National Book Tour 5-10 p.m. Thu., Dec. 4. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. Free (all ages; over 21 after 9 p.m.) 412-621-4900 or www.buenaventurapress.com