A First Base Hit and a Guilty Pleasure

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The Xeric Foundation, along with the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, stands as one of comicdom's twin benevolences. Where the CBLDF protects the first amendment rights of people associated with the industry, the Xeric foundation fosters new growth through its grants given out to first-time self-publishing comic artists. An invaluable resource, the Xeric has provided monies to aspiring authors since 1992, resulting in dozens of books that may never have otherwise seen publication. Two of the 2004 recipients, Nick Jeffrey and Karl Stevens, have recently released their Xeric-sponsored books. Both of their works prove the value of the Xeric endeavor.

Nick Jeffrey's book, "Centerfield" (Floppy Comix; 32 pages; $3.50) reads like a suppressed howl of anguish and guilt, exorcized through a darkly humorous tale of the author's junior high school baseball exploits. Jeffrey depicts himself as a scowling, sullen teenager who never smiles once in the entire book. Though he has a professed hatred of sports, except for professional wrestling, he consistently joins the losing baseball team of his Catholic school. In his final year, two major events converge: the team gets a star player who takes them to the playoffs and Nick's father, who Nick adores, reveals that he has cancer. Though this emotional scene takes place in a quiet living room, Jeffrey uses the visuals to turn the page into a violent series of explosions and splattered corporeal matter, ending with the bruising line, "The moment the word 'cancer' left his mouth, he died." The pain of the moment becomes manifested on the page.

Nick Jeffrey asseses his skills in "Centerfield"

The best parts of "Centerfield" get at the emotional complications resulting from this tragic news. Jeffrey's strong cartooning talent creates complex scenes of bitterness wrapped up in humorous caricature. For example, alone in his dark room after hearing the news, Nick fantasizes about getting sympathy hugs from the cute girl with braces against a setting sun, complete with puppy dog at their side. The book culminates in a true-life sports cliche as Nick goes up to bat for the team down by one in the bottom of the ninth with bases loaded and two outs in the championship game. Unlike fiction, the outcome makes little difference as Nick's father dies anyway, leaving Nick feeling deeply angry. In the book's preface, Nick Jeffrey wonders if this isn't the only "good" story he will ever tell. I doubt it. Though it could use some copyediting, and a bit more development, "Centerfield" shows a real talent for visual storytelling and a gutsy revelation of strong emotion.

The second Xeric-funded book, Karl Stevens' "Guilty," (Karl Stevens Publishing; 64 pages; $10) reveals a major talent that would need to be snapped up by a publisher if Stevens weren't doing it himself. Set in Boston's unique oasis for over-educated, self-involved, post-graduate do-nothings (I should know, I was one of them), the book reads as both a slice of life story and comic send-up. The story takes place over two hot summer days when Ingrid, a young woman whose mind is "wired for self-destruct," according to her girlfriend, runs into Mark, her cheating ex-boyfriend. Mark invites her to hang out with his friends the following evening, and Ingrid, who has a boyfriend, hedges at first but finds herself considering it. Meanwhile, Mark, who made up the story of meeting friends out of thin air, has to get at least one person to accompany him on his stealth date with Ingrid or else wind up looking like "a complete scumbag, or at the very least a big time loser."

Ingrid gets the glad-eye from Mark's pal in Karl Steven's "Guilty"

Boldly designed -- the front, back and spine are without identifying text -- Stevens uses a painstaking cross-hatched style to bring out shades and textures from the black and white palette. Its detailed, photo-based images and its pitch-perfect, "overheard" dialogue, give "Guilty" the sense of a verite documentary. Even minor characters seem alive, like Mark's acid-tongued work mate who asks, "If she's your 'friend,' when was the last time you hung out with her since you broke up?" Fans of Richard Linklater will immediately pick up on the similarities between "Guilty" and the director's smartly-written generational movies such as "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused." Stevens clearly knows these characters inside and out, and even makes an amusing cameo as a besotted couch casualty.

Unlike a film though, we get to read Mark and Ingrid's thoughts. This crucial insight clues us into each character's secret motivations. Ingrid, for example, recalls cheating on Mark with his roommate, unbeknownst to him. So she uses her guilt to rationalize the clearly bad move of meeting him. Even Mark's manipulative scheme gradually begins to seem more like a pitifully misguided attempt at reconnecting with someone he cared about. The whole thing blows up, of course, at the climactic get-together where Mark gets progressively more drunk, his horny friend gets less cautious and Ingrid allows herself to hang around for the free drinks. Astutely observed, snappily written and finely drawn, Karl Stevens' "Guilty" makes for an impressive debut.