Harkham’s comics revolve around recurring themes of family, conflicting responsibilities and aspirations. He’s got a sharp focus on what he’s interested in — the daily pain and breathless joys of men who strive and struggle to be upstanding human beings. His protagonists are usually unassuming Jewish men and young fathers.
The first page of “Crickets #3” is crammed with information, featuring an illustrative piece, a remembrance piece memorializing five cartoonists who died between the second and third issues, the colophon, a political cartoon and a comic adaptation of a part of Franz Kafka’s diary, with just enough room to print the thank yous sideways in a two-inch space. There follows a previously published piece, “The New Yorker Story,” that follows the last 24 hours of a Yale University literature professor as he attempts to finish a story for The New Yorker. It’s similarly dense, with around 100 panels crammed into four pages.
The effect is similar to the opening credits to Gaspar Noé’s 2009 film “Enter the Void,” which were designed to obliterate the outside world and entirely plunge the audience into the artist’s fiction with sensory overload. After “The New Yorker Story,” Harkham slows the reader down, first with a vignette of a three-minute conversation held during a chance smoke break. After that, the issue launches into “Blood of the Virgin,” which makes up the meat of “#3.”
“Blood of the Virgin” is set in the fall of 1971, centering around an aspiring Jewish filmmaker as he tries to make it in the Hollywood studio system. In every direction, personal and professional, the hero feels as though he’s hitting a brick wall. But hope still shines for him when a producer green lights a long-gestating script to cash in on the latest werewolf craze — and this poor shmuck realizes this might be his last chance at his dreams.
It’s not particularly new ground, but this story of a struggling artist feels heartily personal. It’s told with a knowing sense of humor, where the gags aren’t designed to draw laughter but instead a breath and a nod. Harkham’s love for genre B-movies (he runs Cinefamily, a well-regarded repository cinema in West Hollywood) shines through with the story’s attention to detail, at one point illustrating the practical effects behind melting faces in monster movies.
Harkham’s art also focuses on details in the settings of the story — the illustrations of the spaces the characters interact in reflect their internal states. He perfectly captures the sleaze of a Hollywood party, the quiet bedroom just before the baby begins to cry and the messy closets that film editors toil in.
The characters find peace in small, repeated actions. He draws numerous panels of their detailed tasks, where their skills as artisans shine and life becomes simple again. For example, one 12-panel illustration follows the steps of cooking a chicken, rice and vegetable dinner. This is contrasted later with an outrageously hedonistic costume party where the panels balloon into varying sizes, reflecting the disorder of the scene. On the exact opposite page, Harkham returns to order with images of his wife nursing their crying baby, the panels locked in a tight grid of sobriety.
For Harkham, the contrast and the friction between the two is where life exists. Though the characters engage in the extremes of wild fantasies and domestic responsibility, their mundane existence together, as flawed as it is, is what Harkham emphasizes as being human.
A great deal of Harkham’s comics, including the first two issues of “Crickets,” can be found online at whatthingsdo.com. “Crickets #3” can be found in comic book stores everywhere and can be ordered directly from Sammy Harkham’s bookstore Family Los Angeles at store.familylosangeles.com.