Comix About Real World Problems

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A prize turkey gets surgery. A choir needs a pianist. Small stuff makes headlines at the "Wheatstone Mercury," a provincial English newspaper and the locus of Andi Watson's "Slow News Day" (Slave Labor Graphics; 24pp.; $3.50each) whose sixth and final issue appeared last week. Watson has simultaneously released a single-issue novella, "Dumped" (Oni Press; 56pp.; $5.95), which along with SND and last year's "Breakfast After Noon," (see TIME.comix review) make a loose trilogy about the lives of England's urban, middle-class singles. Just as the Mercury turns small events into front-page news, Watson makes smart, compelling comix out of nothing more than relationships endangered by complicated personalities. The headline would be: "Couples Have Problems."

"Slow News Day," stars Katharine Washington, a young, self-confident, smartly dressed San Francisco native whose English mother has arranged an internship at the Mercury. Katharine mostly takes the job to gather color for the screenplay she hopes to sell. Assigned to assist Owen Holmes, the paper's lone, grumpy reporter, the two of them spark like wet leaves. "How do you spell 'centre,'" he demands by way of greeting. Meanwhile his girlfriend, the head of ad sales at the paper, impatiently waits for him to move out of his dad's house and into hers. Against a fascinating glimpse of how a small town paper runs — like choosing between a lost hamster story or a merchant's ad for the cover — we see Owen become more and more conflicted about the direction of his life. Meanwhile Katharine struggles with her long-distance boyfriend. With his subtle approach and care for character, Watson smartly avoids the pitfalls of turning SND into a broad "Ugly American" or "Kooky English" cliché. Instead it settles into a study of people's changing priorities.

The compact "Dumped" begins with a drunken shag at a party in London. He, Binny, collects abused books for tantalizing revelations about the previous owner. "This is the section with pages torn out," he says of his collection. "These are crammed full of exam notes." She, Debby, runs a used clothing store. Smitten and desperate Binny finds Debby again and they begin a tenuous relationship. Watson has given us two very convincing male wankers in "Breakfast After Noon" and "Slow News Day," but this time it's the snobbish and secretive Debby who provides the friction. "Binny's not boyfriend material," declares the two-timing Debs. Typical of Watson's style, Binny may not, in fact, be boyfriend material. He's got no job, mooches off friends, and fills his life with other people's cast-offs. Eventually a dramatic English downpour brings things to head.

Watson's distinct black and white brushwork reduces things to their essentials, leaving just enough to establish place and convey the character's emotions. Katharine Washington's face is made of an inverted pentagon with two dots and five strokes for features, but her range outdoes that of many real actresses. Watson could give lessons in the economics of cartoon characterization. "Dumped," has an even more interesting look, with a gray wash, and slightly degraded lines that come either from rough paper or hard pencil.

Katharine gets a surprise in Andi Watson's "Slow News Day"

More ambitious both literarily and graphically, "Dumped" makes for the better read. It takes "Slow News Day" almost three times as long to cover the same emotional ground. Contrived plot points seem to be Watson's sticky wicket. The sudden sale of Katherine's hokey-sounding screenplay, forcing her to leave the paper, seems as unlikely as her not knowing the word "queue." "Dumped" likewise has some unbelievable circumstances, but they're at the service of a more ambitious statement so you forgive them. Among other things the book examines the importance of material objects in our lives — a smashed CD player becomes a key prop — while also working as a love story.

By writing comix about how relationships evolve Andi Watson defies expectations. (The least of these is that he is not a woman.) He uses an art form associated with fast-paced, plot-heavy, male-centric fantasy to tell naturalistic stories of love and loss. Both "Slow News Day" and "Dumped" have a soft, subtle pleasure in their stories of the things that really matter. While "Spider-Man" may be the comic character of the moment, his extraordinary powers would be laughably useless in Watson's world.

"Slow News Day" will be collected into a paperback in July and will be available, as the individual issues are now, at better comicbook stores. "Dumped" can likewise be found there.