Review by Win Wiacek
Some cartoonists, like some rock-stars or movie-makers make big headlines and meteorically hit the public attention early in their careers. Others soldier on in the background, relishing the untroubled obscurity and assiduously building a body of brilliant, well-regarded work that the even the shooting stars are envious of.
Such a creator is Sammy Harkham. Born in Los Angeles in 1980, he spent his teenage years in Australia and developed a pathological love of the comics medium. It first surfaced after he created the astounding and multi-award winning anthology Kramers Ergot in the opening moments of the 21st century.
The occasional compendium offered artists an utterly free intellectual outlet and more nurturing creative environment, and featured superb works by a multitude of graphic storymakers, but was also an outlet for Harkham’s own fabulously eclectic and enthralling comic strips. Now many of his sublimely rendered, addictively intriguing, creatively-inspirational cartoons stories are gathered in an entrancing softcover collection no mature aficionado should be without.
Everything Together comprises superbly challenging cartoon opuses and short pieces plus some quirky, ultra-brief vignettes, and the only grudging criticism that some of the very best are printed, really, really small. However, even that’s not an insurmountable problem since Harkham’s an artist’s artist, capable of stunning line-economy and clear narrative.
Always a master of understated nuance and the necessarily unsaid, with an uncanny ability to find stories in any place, Harkham’s finest comics kick off here with the quietly hilarious art-challenged world-conqueror and sub-par cartoonist ‘Napoleon!’
Next, Harkham deliciously demythologises the Biblical Jewish experience with the wry, dry ‘Elisha’ and then changes pace by packing in a bunch of those teeny-weeny tales on a single page of ‘Indicia Comics’ that includes ‘Attack of the Frankensteins!’, ‘Cab Ride’, ‘Cartoonist’, ‘Pickton Grocery Line’ and more.
A longer exploration of life in South Australia in 1995 follows as bemused idle kid Iris fretfully whiles away another dull summer with cadged cigarettes, illicit booze, unwise boyfriends and basic buddy-bonding in the eerily laconic and mesmerising ‘Somersaulting’. Immediately after, the uncompromising single-pager ‘Mother Fucker’ focuses on a day-trip with Iris’s absentee dad and ‘Maximum Destruction’ offers a furiously delightful tribute to Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.
Most stories are in assorted limited half-tones (black, white and another colour), but – and only when he thinks it appropriate – Harkham delves splendidly into his glorious full-spectrum palette, beginning with the idyllic ‘Knut Hamsun Dept:’ and the surreal desert crime caper ‘Give Up’ before concluding with the oddly lyrical ‘Golem Comics’.
In black and blue and white ‘Poor Sailor’ details how frustrated dreams, daily routine and dissatisfaction can destroy a perfect life, ‘Cartoonists in Cars’ provides a portmanteau of telling revelations and ‘Frank S. Santoro, Sr.’ details the non-events of a cold night in Pittsburgh.
A telling moment of domesticity and ancestral history is examined in the poor, hard-pressed Jewish Shtetl of ‘Lubavitch, Ukraine, 1876’ whilst contemporary ennui informs the creepy ‘Sitting Outside, Watching Baby’. ‘Free Comics’ bundles together another batch of spellbinding mini-cartoon moments and this tantalising tome concludes with ‘The New Yorker Story’, a darkly enticing literary romance of diluted passion and ascendant aesthetics.
Easily blending love, absurdity, mania, wry wit, hate, indifference, reportage, apathy, resignation, whimsy and honest hope when nothing else is left, Everything Together perfectly showcases the deep thought and carefully considered visual elucidation of a master craftsman. Harkham’s renown is at last catching up with his diligence and sheer talent.