San Francisco’s Silver Sprocket has gone from a scrappy little producer of punk records and zines to a publisher providing a voice to the most diverse roster of artists of any North American publisher. Led by publisher Avi Ehrlich, Silver Sprocket lives its values with comics about punk culture, mental illness, queer lives, and people of color. Its political values may be DIY and anti-establishment, but its attention to production values and design sets it apart from traditional, home-made zines. Ehrlich’s willingness to go the extra mile to make these comics look great, especially with regard to color, brings the true vision of each artist to life. What is most interesting to me about Silver Sprocket’s most recent publications is just how utterly unapologetic they are with regard to their subject matter. These are not comics aimed at a mainstream audience; they are meant to be placed in the hands of sympathetic readers on as widespread a basis as possible.
The latest batch of comics from Silver Sprocket includes some comics first done elsewhere that were expanded for their Silver Sprocket release, and overall it’s the best-looking batch of comics that Ehlich has published. Let’s take a closer look at these seven new titles.
Yes I’m Flagging, by Archie Bongiovanni. Bongiovanni’s earliest comics, like Out Of Hollow Water, were dark and poetic. However, their subsequent work has been far more upbeat, especially their slice of life comic, The Greasebats. Like a 21st-century version of Dykes To Watch Out For, The Greasebats offers a hilarious and sympathetic look at a group of queer people in Minneapolis. Bongiovanni also does educational comics, such as A Quick And Easy Guide To Pronouns and her Silver Sprocket release, Yes I’m Flagging. Bongiovanni always makes it clear in comics like these that this is just an introduction to a far more complicated issue and then offers more potential resources. However, this serves as an excellent introduction to the queer practice of “flagging,” or using different-colored handkerchiefs to publicly signal that you’re interested in a particular sex act — either performing or receiving. They jokingly warn straight people away from the practice, saying “You already have undercuts and harnesses. Let me keep this.”
Bongiovanni offers a brief critique of some racist uses of the “hanky code” before going on to detail what different colors mean. The pocket one places the handkerchief in signals a desire to give or receive it, and different colors include grey for bondage, coral for foot play, and orange for “down for anything.” Bongiovanni’s illustrations are lively and expressive, extensively using color to get across their narrative meaning through the differently colored codes. While the overall tone of the comic is playful, Bongiovanni explores cultural contexts and meanings, especially with regard to the hierarchy of colors that resulted and how important flagging still can be in the age of the internet.
The Cruising Diaries, by Brontez Purnell and Janelle Hessig. Old punks don’t die, they just get funnier. This is an expanded version of a book published by Hessig’s own Gimme Action small press in 2014 that Purnell wrote and Hessig illustrated. I can think of no better home for this wildly irreverent, filthy, and hilarious piece of literature than Silver Sprocket. Purnell and Hessig are both old-school zinesters and musicians, and this work of “anti-erotica” ridiculously details the many sexual encounters he had in his youth in San Francisco. Purnell’s ruthlessly over-the-top descriptions of his sexcapades and Hessig’s exaggerated line are perfect complements, as she had a particular talent for zeroing in on the most ridiculous aspect of each story. For example, when Purnell notes that he had the urge to rip out his partner’s spine while fisting him on shrooms à la the video game Mortal Kombat, Hessig reduced it to a simple image of Purnell yelling “Finish him!” with his hand up his partner’s ass.
This is more than just a series of ridiculously and frequently gross stories about sexual encounters. There are stinging critiques of race, gentrification, growing up in Alabama, and both gay and straight culture. There is a fierce intelligence at work here, one lacking any sense of shame or regret, and it’s obvious that by exposing himself so willingly, he is exposing the hypocrisy and prejudices of everyone he encountered. In a book where each story was funnier and more demented than the next, he ended the book with a story that could not be surpassed: “Hello Kätzchen.” It’s a story about an encounter with a German man who wanted his partner to dress like Hello Kitty and shit in a litterbox and contains this unbelievable sequence: “I literally thought the whole German dudes being into poop was this trope they made up on that show South Park, like it was stereotypical fiction, like Irish being drunks or America being a democracy.” Purnell and Hessig take no prisoners in this wildly entertaining book.
Marie And Worrywart, by Jenn Woodall. Subtitled “Comics about Anxiety,” this is a terrifyingly accurate depiction of the kind of self-destructive talk that Generalized Anxiety Disorder can create as well as the way Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder warps reality. Woodall’s naturalistic line is done in black and white, with one noticeable exception: the deep red of her anxious Worrywart, which also speaks in word balloons that sometimes engulf the Marie character. There’s a particular detail that Woodall nails in this comic: at first glance, Marie seems cool and collected, almost aloof, as she sits at a bus stop smoking a cigarette. Then the Worrywart goes into its process of catastrophization, a frequent symptom of OCD, imagining a series of worst-case scenarios for a camping trip.
Woodall formats this comic as a series of mental health-related vignettes set off by interstitial pages providing details regarding mental illness. In the second vignette, Worrywart convinces Marie to leave an art opening by escalating the opening gambit of “No one likes you and everyone thinks you’re weird” and ratcheting it up to “Everyone is staring at you.” Marie’s anger toward her companion is palpable. Even as she throws it in a garbage can, it simply says, “I’ll see you at home.” The final vignette sees Worrywart preying on her insecurities as an artist, as she compares herself to her peers and her parasite says that she’ll never catch up to them, engulfing her in a sea of red that keeps her in bed.
Big Punk, by Janelle Hessig. This looks like the first issue in a series of comics about a punk who leaves the rapidly gentrifying city for a remote cabin out in the woods. She eventually gets lonely in her secluded home and bemoans not being able to get on Tinder…until a Bigfoot comes calling. Hilariously, the story moves ahead a year, where she’s married to the creature and they have a kid she calls Big Punk. Going into town, she taunts a couple of locals who insult her, nearly setting them off to go after her. Returning home, she sees her beloved husband and son curled up together outside in front of a fire. As always, Hessig’s use of bright colors and exaggerated character designs and facial expressions makes this fun simply to look at. I like the idea of Silver Sprocket serializing this comic, especially for just five bucks, but Hessig’s work tends to work best when the pages stack up and the intensity of her drawing hits hard. This was fun, but it left me wanting much more, especially since the premise was so breezy.
One Million Tiny Fires, by Ashley Robin Franklin. This comic packed the biggest punch of any in this batch from Silver Sprocket, and it’s certainly on my shortlist for best comics of 2020. Every detail of its production is clearly well-thought-out, from the reflective silver ink of the title on the cover of the comic to Franklin’s almost painful depiction of intimacy. The story follows Briana and her partner Cassie, who are struggling to make a living on a farm in rural Texas. Franklin cleverly establishes their relationship as one that’s become abusive, as Cassie presents with a hair-trigger temper but is really deflecting their own feelings of failure with regard to the farm.
Then there’s a massive swerve, and Franklin makes it obvious that she’s not trying to hide it from the reader: something falls from the sky, Cassie finds it, and it’s not long before Cassie is replaced by something else. What’s fascinating about this is how Franklin presents the relationship between Briana and this new Cassie. Cassie is odd, but also warm and affectionate. Franklin hints that Briana and Cassie’s sex life had been dead, but her replacement is all about as much physical contact as possible. The new Cassie tames a dog, is nice to Briana all the time, and just wants to be with her partner.
Briana eventually figures things out, and being shown exactly what Cassie is turns out to be the end of everything for her in a literal sense, but there’s a moment of rapture before she goes. However, Franklin also drops hints that Briana knew this was all an illusion anyway, even before the final reveal. Briana started to ignore important mail, especially bills labeled “Final Notice” Much of the work on the farm went undone, as the details of real life mattered less and less. Franklin implies that Briana wanted to believe the lie, because she was experiencing an intense intimacy that she thought was out of her reach. Franklin’s character design and depiction of body language and gesture feels so real that it almost feels that I was intruding on the privacy of these characters. Franklin leaves the question of what exactly the new Cassie is deliberately vague, but one gets the sense that she isn’t simply an alien, but something like a sentient piece of the void of space. It is all a fantasy doomed from the start, yet this being healthier and more fulfilling than Briana’s relationship with the actual Cassie is a telling part of the narrative. In an existential sense, Briana was already embracing the void, as she was living a life she didn’t want with a person who no longer loved her. The new Cassie simply forestalls a fate that was perhaps already written for her, giving her a moment of warmth before meeting eternity.
No Romance In Hell, by Hyena Hell. Hyena Hell’s autobiographical comics are consistently funny and heartfelt grapplings with anxiety and depression, only with a number of demonic and supernatural characters as her inner sidekicks. It only makes sense that this fictional comic has the structure of a romance story, only its main character is a demon whose stare can disintegrate anyone that pisses her off. After reading a bizarre romance comic to set the stage (it’s about a nun casting aside her vows to get married), she tries hitting on a demon guard friend, and he simply ignores her. She disintegrates the guardian of the elevator that leads to Earth and goes on a dating rampage. Hell’s skill as an artist is integrating genuine emotions with over-the-top supernatural violence. The parody of highly typical outcomes for dates stemming from apps like Tinder is hilarious, as she disintegrates every single potential suitor with her eye beams. Hell’s drawings have a satisfyingly visceral quality to them, as though she takes great delight in taking the time to draw so much detail for these charred corpses. The guys the demon dates decry old girlfriends for being psycho, demean her looks, put down female artists, quote the bible at her, etc. The comic concludes with a six-page fist-fight with her demon guard friend that doubles as (literally) hot sex. The sheer density of Hell’s line creates much of the comic’s atmosphere, with her use of spotting blacks to add weight to every page being the key to the visceral quality of her drawings. This is a perfect SIlver Sprocket release: pop-punk-romance-horror.
Miffed Ruffianz: Penultimate Subterfuge, by Rodger Binyone. It must be said that while the punk ethos is a key aspect of Silver Sprocket, the actual formal qualities of the comics themselves are fairly traditional. Most of the artists work in a naturalistic style with some cartoony exaggeration with the funnier comics. The page layouts and narrative styles are all straightforward and familiar. There’s nothing boundary-breaking or visually challenging in this batch of comics, with the exception of Binyone’s comic.
Miffed Ruffianz: Penultimate Subterfugehas the feel of a comic done on a Risograph, especially given the color choices and effects. Its day-glow color scheme, trippy line art, and unusual page design all add to the atmosphere of this comic about a keyboard player auditioning and then joining a performance art rock-band called Miffed Ruffianz. They’re a band that’s part Devo, part sex cult, and part something out of an old issue of Re/Search. The comic follows them as they spread their message, get even with their enemies in graphically violent ways, have orgies, and generally spread chaos everywhere. Though it’s visually challenging in some ways, it falls short of actually Risographed and handmade weirdness from artists like Scott Roberts (his mini Body Magik explores similar territory, but his characters are far more human). This comic is another bit of attractive pop art, only without the heart and grit of other Silver Sprocket releases.
This speaks to the overall character of the sort of comics that Ehrlich publishes. His aim is not so much to provoke as it is to provide a far broader and more diverse space for entertainment than other publishers. He’s not afraid to publish genre comics if they fit within this kind of pop-punk space, but it seems clear that his project as a publisher is to provide spaces for cartoonists traditionally shut out of the aesthetics of other publishers a chance to express themselves in a completely uncompromising manner and have a lot of fun while doing it.