Comics at your fingertips … for a cigarette machine
How much I love Andy Brown and Joe Ollmann’s “Milo and Sam” (riddle: not paginated, $ 2 of paper)? It’s the kind of project that reframes ambition, telling a nuanced story almost entirely between the lines.
A comic the size of a palm, the size of a cigarette pack (more on this in a moment), it has a single black and white frame per page. The effect is to draw us into the intimacy of the story, which tells the story of two fathers and their young sons on an outing in the countryside, a pastoral that becomes tense when one of the children eats a mushroom ( potentially toxic).
Ollmann, of course, specializes in this sort of thing; his graphic novels “Mid-life” and “Science Fiction” turn epic art into the mundane. Here, however, he and Brown (who founded Enigma, the Montreal comic press that publishes Ollmann, among others) has effectively raised (or lowered) the stakes.
“I designed a four-part daily comic,” writes Brown in a brief afterword, “that would be reminiscent of old newspaper strips from the 20’s and 30’s, especially Frank King’s” Gasoline Alley. ” Since my son Milo was two at the time and played a lot with his best mate Sam [Ollmann’s son] … I logically thought of using this material wealth for the project. In the end, we collaborated on five tapes, each of which was essentially a joke. … What I hoped to create was a modern retelling of those old tapes, retaining the nostalgic yet vulnerable tone that I believe captures the anxieties and joys of being a new father.
“Milo & Sam” achieves this, while pushing, effectively, into new territory. This is partly due to parallel relationships, between fathers on the one hand and sons on the other, and partly to the stripped-down dynamic of the narrative. Here, nothing really happens, but at the same time, everything is happening.
This is only reinforced by the presence, in these latter settings, of Brown’s wife, Meg Sircom, who died of cancer in 2011 at the age of 43. The book is dedicated to her memory, but her appearance in the hospital, where the two dads went after the mushroom-eating incident, makes her (and her loss) come alive for us in a compelling way.
Then there is the shape of the book, a true paperback story, designed to be sold at Louis Rastelli. Distroboto machine. It is a cigarette vending machine, reconfigured to sell small books and art objects at various events and exhibitions; as Brown writes, “Milo & Sam” was born out of an appeal by Rastelli and a curator named Meredith Caruthers to “a number of Montreal artists to create maps of the city in a unique way”.
That this is what Brown and Ollmann proposed suggests the variety of ways we map our existence, through memory and friendship as well as mapping. Here, we see what “Milo & Sam” has to offer: a kind of atlas, in miniature, of two fathers with their children, “nostalgic but vulnerable”, a day before the world changes.