Understanding Mini-Comics

Mini-comics are an under-appreciated subset of an already niche medium, yet they seem to transcend form and content. Kevin Nguyen asks aficionados and authors to define what exactly a mini-comic is.

I stumbled across my first mini-comic last fall. It was the second issue of Eric Haven’s Tales to Demolish, an eccentric 6″x9″ comic about a man who accidentally kills cartoonists Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine. In turn, Clowes and Tomine come back from the dead for revenge—after asking permission from God, who is portrayed with three eyes, tentacle arms, and a fishtail.

It was fucking weird, but compelled me to seek out other mini-comics. And thanks to the web, you can find a plethora of even the most niche art forms.

But I hard time figuring out what exactly a mini-comic was.

Excerpt from Eric Haven's Tales to Demolish

An excerpt from Eric Haven’s “Tales to Demolish”; courtesy of Sparkplug Comic Books.

I assumed from the name that mini-comics could be defined just by their form. That’s not the case, according to Shawn Hoke, author of mini-comics blog Size Matters. To my surprise, the concept of the mini-comic goes beyond both form and content.

Hoke was careful not to limit his definition, but wanted to make clear distinctions on what isn’t a mini. Small-form Marvel or G.I. Joe comics, for example, don’t count because they’re mass-produced for a target audience. And some real mini-comics aren’t “mini” at all.

“You can find mini-comics larger than a record album sleeve or small enough to fit in those little plastic bubbles in a gumball machine,” Hoke said. “I have mini-comics in the shape of a pyramid, a Rubik’s Cube, masquerading as a pack of cigarettes, and in the form of traditional Egyptian scrolls.”

Hoke’s collection of mini-comics is limited by the size of his condo, but his permanent library contains about 400 minis, plus 100 to 200 more waiting to be reviewed. This is a guy who’s seen almost everything, and won’t restrict the medium by content, either. Unlike mainstream comics, minis rarely undergo editorial oversight, which Hoke considers a big advantage, as it makes minis “wildly inventive, very personal, and sometimes challenging.”

I thought about Daniel Clowes being hit by a car. Hoke’s description seemed to cover that. But while it was easy to say what a mini-comic is not, defining what it is proved elusive, even for Hoke.

“My short definition,” he said, “is a limited-run, handmade comic created with passion and love.”

The DIY-nature of mini-comics hits the mark, but Hoke lost me with “passion and love.” Couldn’t the same thing be said about any artistic medium?

I asked Jordan Crane, an L.A.-based cartoonist who’s been making mini-comics since 1998. His answer was equally cryptic.

“The problem with defining mini-comics is partly what makes them so cool,” he said.

Crane didn’t want to assign any more restrictions than Hoke did, citing only low print run and hand-assembled traits as a definition. Form wasn’t really a factor, and his own work proves that mini-comics aren’t bound by content. In contrast to Tales to Demolish, Crane’s Keeping Two is about a pair of separate but equally strained relationships. Also, no famous cartoonists are murdered.

Jordan Crane's Keeping Two

Parts #1 and #2 of Jordan Crane’s “Keeping Two”; courtesy of Jordan Crane

Currently, Crane’s work is being published by Fantagraphics Books and now splits his time between drawing comics and screenprinting. For him, making mini-comics early in his career helped him mature as a cartoonist, but gave him the satisfaction that someone was reading his informally published work rather than “keeping it a secret.”

Most of all, Crane enjoyed producing something that could be appreciated by holding it in your hands. In some ways, the appeal of mini-comics stems from a reaction to mass production. We don’t get hand-touched personality and care from most of the art we enjoy. In fact, we barely hold anything in our hands anymore, as the internet consolidates all mediums into a hyper-efficient, digital milieu.

Crane stressed that he has never turned a profit from making mini-comics and, at best, recouped what he spent photocopying pages and screenprinting covers. The inexpensive nature of mini-comics encourages people to pick up material they’re unfamiliar with. Dropping three dollars on a comic with a handsome cover is a gamble most buyers are willing to take.

I asked if mini-comics were a way to get noticed by publishers, but Crane insisted that the work itself is what inspires people to make mini-comics, not the other way around.

“Doing a mini-comic isn’t going to get anybody published,” he said. “It’s a way of making work and getting it out to people.”

Sure, artists in other mediums will claim they’re doing what they do for the sake of art, but every other major form—whether it’s music, film, painting, even regular comics—has some potential to be lucrative or, at the very least, help the artist gain exposure. But cartoonists know that mini-comics are too labor-intensive to be profitable and too limited in number to get major attention. It’s a niche within an already marginalized medium, and yet, there seems to be no shortage of mini-comics.

And I think that’s what Shawn Hoke was getting at earlier. “Passion and love” may seem too subjective to use as a definition, but these human features are essential to understanding what mini-comics are.

Hoke first fell in love with mini-comics at the annual Small Press Expo (SPX), an annual showcase of independent comics in Bethesda, Maryland. He met a community of genial, passionate artists who loved to talk about their work. The experience inspired Hoke to pen his own mini-comics, on a very personal level.

“SPX led me to make limited-run—25 copies at the most—mini-comics for my wife and friends,” he said. “Since then, I have always made mini-comics for Kate on our anniversary and her birthday.”

For a better look into the diverse world of mini-comics, check out Shawn Hoke’s blog Size Matters. For more info on Eric Haven’s Tales to Demolish, check out Sparkplug Comic Books. Jordan Crane’s Keeping Two can be found on his website.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.