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19 August 2008

Josh Latta's RASHY RABBIT

Anxiety, Sleep Problems & Depression #1 (2004?), Anxiety, Sleep Problems & Depression #2 (Spring, 2005), Rashy Rabbit #3 (Feb. 2007) and Rashy Rabbit #4 (Spring 2008) by Josh Latta.
Samples of Josh Latta's comics can be found on his blog.

Rashy Rabbit #3 is one of the main comics that inspired me to start file under other. Josh sent it to me sometime in early 2007 before that year's Fluke show. I picked up a lot of great minicomics at that show and after reading those and Rashy Rabbit #3 it occurred to me that I was not seeing a lot of reviews or publicity for all of these great books. I read a lot of minicomics reviews but the comics being covered were not the comics I was seeing. I felt that there was something missing in minicomics coverage, criticism and discourse. So, after many months of second guessing and procrastinating I finally launched file under other and it was my plan that Rashy Rabbit #3 would be one of the first comics I would review. My expectation was that it would take a long time before people started sending me comics and that I would cover some of my favorite existing comics in the meantime. The meantime never came. Minicomics started showing up in the mail immediately. I was instantly behind and I am still very behind. I had it in mind to cover the comics as they showed up in the mail and so the Rashy Rabbit review stayed on the back burner. Now, at this point, Rashy Rabbit #4 is out and has had several reviews and I'm feeling that if I wait any longer to write about it that (1) I'll be the last blogger on earth to cover it and that (2) Josh will be on Rashy Rabbit #12 by the time I finish the thing.
But before I jump into Rashy Rabbit #3 or #4 I want to got back to where it all started with a minicomic called Anxiety, Sleep Problems & Depression. I love this title because I have a fondness for long titles but I understand why Josh simplified it to just Rashy Rabbit. It's a long title and it is probably a bit intimidating to some readers but it does describe what the thing is. This first issue does not try and pull off any kind of origin or character setup nonsense that usually bog down first issues. It jumps right in like a good TV sitcom and Josh pulls this off by filling each page with a fully realized and believable cartoon world.

Josh starts the comic off with a series of pantomime panels that introduce the reader to Rashy's world and you immediately understand the setting without any exposition. Josh's tight detailed panels have the vibe of 70's and 80's underground comix but the character designs and cartooning harken back to the funny animal cartoons made long before Josh was born. It's a funky lived-in look and even though Rashy is a rabbit you know right away that this is going to be an adult comic and that anything could happen. I don't see this in many comics these days. Even in some of my favorite comics, the backgrounds are just there out of necessity. That method works great in action comics and manga but it's nice to see such a fully realized world. It sets the tone of the story and helps you understand where the characters come from. And it's not so much about the amount of detail put into the backgrounds. It's about the style put into the backgrounds. In my favorite underground comix like those by Gilbert Shelton, Robert Williams or Crumb you instantly know the vibe of the thing before the characters even speak and these comics have that. It's the same kind of instant recognition you get from classic animated cartoons. Like Heckle and Jeckle cartoons or the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comix, Rashy has his own funky little world. This book is probably one of my most re-read comics because each time I look at it I catch little jokes and gags I might have missed the last time through. Each panel has its own life filled with neat little details like birds pooping or monsters getting it on in a video. The panels are full of motion and drive the story at a rapid. This is staying a lot because the pages have very ambitious layouts of anywhere from six to thirteen panels. For a twenty page minicomic, this thing is pretty dense. I'm not patient enough to count the panels but there are a lot of panels. My hand hurts just thinking about all that drawing, inking and lettering but it's really a pleasure to look at. (These scans really don't do the pages justice but if you click to enlarge you will get a better idea. Josh also has some samples on his blog.)

The title of this review probably clued you in that Rashy Rabbit is the star of the series. Rashy is a young single aimless working class rabbit who could serve as a cipher for most young single aimless working class American humans (or folks like me who once lived that life, oh, say back in the 90's..) except that he's a rabbit. Rashy's character and situation are all in the title. He's insecure about work, relationships and life in general and suffers the accompanying anxiety, sleep problems and depression. The story in this specific issue revolves around Rashy going over to his girlfriend Penny's house for a date. Penny's parents are away so the date goes through wine, weed and sex and devolves into a drunken shouting and sob fest. The story is one most of us can (unfortunately) relate to. It's not that different than the relationship drama seen in TV sitcoms except it has the R rated realism of sex, drugs and language not safe for television... oh, and rabbits.

It's not the story that is important as much as the execution. The dialog and the cartooning are very clever and realistic. And by clever, I don't mean that the characters all talk in the same college grad voice we see in too much fiction. I mean it's clever in that Josh has a knack for breaking the language down into the instantly recognizable cliche's and stereotypes we humans really use in these situations... only with rabbits. Each character has their own voice and comes with their own emotional motivation. It is amazing how may writers fail to see the importance in this. Apparently the dead on accuracies of the character's actions and emotions are due in part to a bit of autobiographical slight of hand. Having read the comic several times, it never occurred to me that it might be autobiographical but Josh recently revealed on his blog that this issue was semi-autobiographical. Maybe it's the thin veil of the anthropomorphic animals but I really think it's just the strength and efficiency of his storytelling that distracts you from thinking about " is this a true story" or not.

Whether it is auto-bio or fiction does not make a lot of difference to me. I like both but what I look for the most is honesty. I'm not talking about the comics being truthful or factual but that the creator as storyteller is being honest with the audience. That he/she is not cheating it by using an easy device that is not true to the characters. That once the characters are created, he/she allows them to go where they would most likely go without being afraid of stepping on the audience's toes. That is the kind of honesty I look for in all art and that is the kind of honesty I find in and love about Josh's comics.

I don't' see a lot of this kind of honesty in minicomics or comics in general these days. I fell like cartoonists are holding back. That cartoonists are thinking too much about the audience's reaction and are coddling the audience. A few people just lay it all out there. Some of the better auto-bio creators lay it all on the page (Matt, Brunetti, Kochalka etc.) and I think that is why people find them so refreshing compared to mainstream comics but I don't see a lot of this kind of honesty in fiction comics. I think cartoonists, even in minicomics, are too conscious of the potential book, movie, web, publishing etc. deal to just be honest. Josh Simmons' and Johnny Ryan's fiction comics have the kind of honesty I'm talking about. A few others do. Josh Latta's definitely do. But it's not the norm and that's a big part of the reason I keep re-reading these Rashy Rabbit comics.

In Anxiety, Sleep-Problems & Depression #2 Rashy is dealing with the same issues but the story is more complex and introduces a bigger supporting cast. We get to see Rashy's working life at Mal-Mart (an obvious Wal-Mart stand in) and his interaction with friends and co-workers. This issue is more a commentary on the horror of a retail life and the pitiful social life a retail pay check affords than it is about Rashy seeking to resolve his issues. Rashy's issues are pretty much unresolvable and make up who he is. His issues are the situation in the sitcom of his life.


This issue introduces Rashy's friend and co-worker Morie. Morie is a nice counter point to the Rashy character. He's not especially smarter or less miserable than Rashy but he handles the working class life with a less drug addled and more introverted way. This issue reveals more about Rashy's world and the people (or dogs and rabbits) that live there. Rashy's world is pretty much Atlanta, GA and this opens up the door to a lot of racial and social issues. This comic does not have any kind of agenda but Josh does create a variety of characters from different social/racial/economic backgrounds and it's fun to see them interact. Rashy is white and Morie is black and while they are friends Rashy still steps into some stereotypical blunders. This is getting back to that honesty thing I was talking about. The safe way to go would be not to deal with racial stereotypes but Josh is honest about his characters' world and how they react to it. This opens the door to some really funny racial interactions. Like I said, I don't' think there is an agenda and I don't think it's even trying to be satirical, I just think Josh is being honest about our insecure hero Rashy and how he would act in these situations. I lived in and worked retail in Atlanta myself and I can tell you, these things happen, people do act this way, they do speak this way and on a good day, it's pretty funny.


There is also a neat little segue in the story that focuses on their crazed boss and his delusions of retail power. There are some nice recurring gags dealing with Rashy's fear of this crazy beast and a particularly funny bathroom scene where Rashy overhears his boss's phone call with his mistress. This scene would stand out in any of your favorite stoner comedies or underground comix. The emotional volume is turned down a bit from the first issue but the jokes are more effective.


The drawing and storytelling in this issue are of the same style as the first but everything is just a little better. A natural progression in Josh's craft. The panels are just as detailed but less cluttered. The drawings are cleaner and more relaxed. The use to tones takes the place of some heavy background rendering. It's a more polished comic than the first. This issue also features a backup story with Rashy in World War II that features some lush inking by Josh's Cute Girl Demographics partner Brad McGinty. With 32 quality pages, you won't find many many three dollar mincomics more solid than this.


With the third issue, Josh changes the title to Rashy Rabbit and changes from a horizontal to more traditional vertical format. I like the horizontal format but I suspect Josh changed to vertical because it is easier to print. The change pays off. It's a really good looking book. Very strong cover design and color. The page layouts are much more traditional in this book as well. It is still packed with more detail and more panels than most comics but (for the most part) Josh sticks to a 6 to 10 panel layout. The drawing and cartooning are another step more polished than the 2nd comic and where the 2nd issue moved from heavy rendering to tones, this issue moves from tones to thick blacks.

Once again the emotional intensity is not as high as the first issue but the comedy is turned up another notch. The sight gags and jokes work with more punch and the page transitions really click. This is a very well executed comedy comic. Very often my idea of "best" and "favorite" do not match but I think this is my favorite issue of the four.

The story follows Rashy clumsily wandering through his life trying to get just a little sexual satisfaction either through "massage" therapists, coffee shop girls or strippers. Whatever it takes. This rabbit is desperate. Josh really nails all the awkward steps the modern young loser has to go through in pursuit of sex and/or relationships. There is a really great scene where Rashy stumbles through meeting a girl at a coffee shop. Parallel to Rashy, Morie has his own relationship problems. Morie finds himself in pursuit of a lesbian co-worker and this turns into a nice little subplot with jokes playing on Morie's complete inability to read the opposite sex. These jokes set themselves up but Josh is not heavy handed with it so you find yourself pulling for Morie even though you know he is doomed.


One of my favorite scenes of the series so far is when Rashy tries to kill two birds with one stone by hooking up with the coffee shop girl and trying to score weed at the same time. It's a great bit of comedy where Rashy realizes that nothing is what he was expecting. We get to see Rashy crushed by the "meet my boy freind" moment all young men get slapped in the face with at one time or another by some girl who seemed really into them earlier in the day. There are also some good laughs in the failed drug deal routine. All of the issues have little sub-culture moments like that which I think could really appeal to a wide audience. I fell like there are a lot of folks out there really wishing there were comics like this in their latest issue of
High Times, Heavy Metal , Playboy or even Maxim. (Do people still read magazines? Don't even get me started on my ongoing rant about how much I wish there was a magazine like Weirdo out there. If I could wish new issues of Weirdo into existence they would have Rashy in them.)


With the fourth issue of Rashy Rabbit, Josh introduces a radically different style to the series. I was caught off guard by the change at first but that had less to do with the new style and more to do with how much I enjoyed the previous style. This issue uses a much simplified drawing and character design style. Both the characters and the world they exist in have been stripped down to a purer more animation oriented design. It's kind of like an animation studio had been handed the first three issues and told to break it down to where they could animate the thing without killing themselves. This issue looks more like old Dell and Gold Key comics (complete with a lovely retro cover) than an underground comic and while I was taken aback at first I really think it makes Rashy and his world a lot better. As I said, the third issue might be my favorite so far but the fourth is definitely the best. Using this more "cartoony" children's funny animal comics style to depict Rashy and his "mature audiences" world is much more perverse than the previous issues. And while the character designs are simplified they are also bolder and their actions and emotions are more instantly recognizable. This helps the comedy have a more instant impact. Josh's use of varying grey tones in this issue is near perfect. The tones make it look less like manga or black and white western comics and more like a pre-color animated cartoon.


Another step Josh has taken toward efficiency is abandoning panel borders. Traditionally a cartoonist might present the occasional panel without borders to emphasize the moment or to let a scene breath. What Josh has done here by eliminating all the panels is to make the comic seem like one endless panel. The pacing seems lightning fast. You don't so much read the comic from panel to panel as you watch the characters move from panel to panel. It's much like watching an animated cartoon. You don't think of the panel and page transitions you just sort of watch them happen and try to keep up. This technique is really perfect for this type of comedy and it makes for a very engaging read.


The story starts off with a bang. Right from the start you have interracial/interspecies sex. The first four pages of the story resolve the Morie/lesbian date sub-plot in a short and precise yet laugh out loud shocker. And I don't mean laugh out loud as in introwebnet "lol", I mean that I really laughed out loud. And I never laugh out loud. Without spoiling the joke for you, Josh takes the Morie character to a place I did not want to see him go but still left me laughing. Then the story is back to Rashy and introduces his obnoxious gangstah/playah pal Benny. Benny shares Rashy's weaknesses for the ladies and the weed but has none of Rashy's insecurities. Benny is over the top and fearless and leads Rashy into all kinds of trouble he would have probably chickened out from on his own. Benny is a very funny and well executed character and allows Josh to tell some crazy stories. Benny is one of those guys that can arrange some great night out on the town and then stick you with the bill before you notice you can't escape. We all know someone like Benny and if you don't then you might be Benny.

Once again this issue shows Rashy try to stumble his way through a hook up with a different girl. I don't know if it is intentional that Josh places Rashy in these no win situations with women but I'd like to think it is. I'd like to think that if there were thirty Rashy Rabbit comics that Josh could find away for Rashy to screw it up with the ladies in thirty unique ways. He's like the Bizzaro James Bond.


These four comics have such great honesty to them. I feel that honesty is the best thing an artist can give to his/her audience and I don't see enough of it. Sure, I read a lot of auto-bio comics that are truthful. Even fiction can be truthful. But the truth is relative. One person's truth is meaningless to the next. An artist can present the truth but that won't make the audience believe it. The audience can fell honesty. I've read and re-read all four issues of Rashy Rabbit many times and each time it takes me back to the 90's and that point in my own life when I was a lot like Rashy. I don't think that would be the case if the comics were not honest. They would just be funny stories. If Josh had cheated it and used easy narrative devices and placed the characters in safer situations it might still be funny but it would not feel authentic. Because Josh presents his characters and their world with honesty it has the power to capture that feeling of what it was like to be young dumb and single at the turn of the century. I think that years from now people will be able to look at these comics and say "yeah, that was what it was like". Well, at least I will.

Your best pal ever,
Shannon Smith

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