Wizard #52: Strange Attractors

I have to be honest here. I really don’t recall writing this one. And I don’t really remember too much about Michael Cohen and Mark Sherman‘s Strange Attractors, no offense meant to the two creators.

Wizard #52 sports a rare non-superhero cover courtesy of the Topps Comics incarnation of The X-Files by artist Miran Kim. The other cover for this issue features Dale Keown’s Pitt.

Cohen sent me issues of their comic sporadically after the series started in 1993, and it would take about two years to finally include their comic in my Wizard column. I have copies of the letters he included with each mailing, but don’t have any record of what I wrote back in reply so it’s hard to piece together both sides of our correspondence. I might not have too many behind-the-scenes details on this column, but after re-reading it, it’s apparent that it really illustrates how tough the comic market was becoming as the ’90s rolled on.

There’s a nice little rant to start out the “Recommended Reading” section this month where I implore readers to call their local comic store owner a liar if they won’t order an indy comic. Probably not the best way to get things accomplished in a struggling marketplace, but I was hoping there could be a place for alternative comics in an industry that was increasingly becoming hostile to anything outside of the norm. The ripple effects from Marvel’s purchase of Heroes World distribution and the subsequent rash of exclusive distribution deals were starting to wash over the industry. Comic shops were feeling the pinch from having their money tied up in unsold boxes of X-Men #1 and pre-orders for Image comics that were obscenely late.

Publishing companies were also hurt by the declining market, especially the small group of self-publishers that had stuck it out. Around the time this “Palmer’s Picks” saw print in late ’95, Strange Attractors #12 was published from the creators’ Retrografix imprint. Only three more self-published issues would come out, with long delays between each one. Cohen and Sherman did manage to publish a trade paperback reprint of the early issues of Strange Attractors, but it did little to help the struggling series. A four-issue follow-up, Strange Attractors: Moon Fever, was started at Caliber Press in 1997, but only two issues appeared before the plug was pulled.

Towards the end of my original “Picks” there is a brief quote about the possibility of small press comics finding a home on the Internet. It might have taken over twenty years, but it looks like Cohen and Sherman were able to eventually tap into the potential of the web, as evidenced by the webcomics version of Strange Attractors.


Palmer’s Picks

Space and Beyond

By Tom Palmer Jr.

Just about every person working in comics today can look back fondly on a childhood spent lost in the imaginative and fanciful world of comic books. It’s a pretty safe bet that artist Michael Cohen, one half of the team behind Strange Attractors, has a little bit more to look back on than your typical creator.

“In the early 1960s, my friend Tom [and I] traveled all over Los Angeles looking for used comics,” Cohen remembers. “Eventually we stumbled on a store called Cherokee Books, which was one of the few places in the country that had an extensive Golden Age collection. We ended up working for them, and at one point we were hired to write a price guide for the store [titled The Argosy Comic Book Price Guide]. It turns out that it is one of the very first price guides. It was just me and my friend, and we wrote down as best as we could what we thought those books were worth.”

Cohen’s story bears a slight resemblance to the story of Sophie, the main character of the self-published science fiction comic Strange Attractors created by Cohen and scripter Mark Sherman. At the beginning of the series, Sophie finds herself faced with the task of cataloging the contents of the Museum of Lost Things. Sophie’s job grows more complicated as she quickly becomes entangled in the lives of Pirate Peg and the other characters she used to read about in her favorite comic book, Spicy Space Stories. It turns out these characters are real people, and the creator of the comic has been relating true events which happened to them. Sophie gradually discovers the truth about these stories, which have been altered by the creator to improve the image of its stars.

“We’re trying to tell the story of a character who is not inclined to be a hero,” Cohen explains. “What we’re doing is, over the course of time, making someone who is a withdrawn individual become a hero. It’s sort of our take on what a hero really is.”

While there is a heroic story on the surface of Strange Attractors, there is a lot more going on underneath. In fact, there are enough things going on in the comic to make Strange Attractors very difficult to pin down at first. It pays homage to Golden Age comics without slavishly imitating them. It’s science fiction, yet it isn’t weighed down with excessive technobabble. It’s a romance comic without the usual trappings of the genre. While other creative teams might get lost with all of these disparate elements, Cohen and Sherman expertly mix them all together into a thoroughly exhilarating reading experience.

Cohen and Sherman’s strength also lies in their ability to instantly draw the reader into Sophie’s adventures. Their seemingly simple tale happens to be an intricately plotted adventure in a well-thought-out fantasy world. It’s obvious that Cohen and Sherman spent a lot of time thinking through all of the nuances in Strange Attractors.

In addition to the series, the pair have worked on numerous projects together, from a computer game called Thief Quest to several different bands, but Strange Attractors is the one that they feel the most confident about. “I think the comic worked out because we’ve had years of working together on different projects, and we finally have one that is actually happening, rather than never getting off the drawing board,” explains Sherman.

Cohen and Sherman have a unique working relationship. They both collaborate on the plotting of each story, but Cohen handles all of the art, while Sherman writes the final script for the comic. The whole process is complicated by the fact that the two are separated by 2,500 miles. Sherman resides in the state of Washington, while Cohen recently moved to New Hampshire. “We’re sort of developing a form of ESP,” Cohen explains. “I’ll have an idea for something and I’ll call Mark up, and it turns out he’s thought of the same thing.”

The distance between the two hasn’t put any major strains on their collaboration. “Usually we’re at odds, since we have very different philosophies on life, but for some reason we both want the comic to go in the same direction,” Cohen states. Sherman also has faith in their work on the tide. “It’s sort of like a good marriage where one person has a certain strength that the other lacks, and the whole relationship turns out to be really complementary.”

With all of the changes taking place in the comic marketplace, Cohen and Sherman are trying their best to make sure not only Strange Attractors, but also other small press books, survive. To do their own part, they often swap ads with other self-publishers, and invite other artists to draw pin-ups of the Strange Attractors cast.

They also see possibilities for the small press in the recent boom in technology, especially with the immense exchange of information over the Internet. “There are more and more World Wide Web sites out there for independent comics,” Sherman notes. “Comics with very small circulations are getting picked up on the Internet.”

Cohen and Sherman are grateful for the opportunity they had to start Strange Attractors, and feel that others should have the same chance. “I hope that comics can retain the sort of openness where people on an international basis can get in and produce a piece of effective media, like comics, on a shoestring budget,” Sherman explains. “That kind of access is pretty mind-blowing. It doesn’t exist in any other medium.”

Tom Palmer Jr. never drinks his milk. Maybe that’s why everybody always picks on him.

FYI: The twelfth issue of Strange Attractors is out now, and all previous issues are in print and available. If your comic shop won’t order them for you, you can write directly to Retrografix, 67 Emerald St., Suite 623, Keene, NH 03431. Individual issues are $2.50, plus $1 for postage. New issues appear on a bimonthly basis, and a trade paperback is in the works.

Michael and Mark’s Recommended Reading

The guys at Retrografix support some of the best in the small press. If you’re looking for something different, give these books a try: Wandering Star (Pen & Ink Comics), Poison Elves (Sirius), Cyberzone (Jet Black Graphics), Gideon Hawk (Big Shot Comics), Bacchus (Eddie Campbell Comics), Thieves and Kings (I Box Publishing), Cavewoman (Basement Comics), Known Associates Mystery Series (Known Associates Press).

Recommended Reading

I’ve been making the rounds to different comic stores lately, and I’ve noticed that it is almost impossible to find any small press books on the stands. If you are looking for any of the comics I have written about recently, then you MUST ask your store owner to order them for you. Don’t be afraid to speak up. Your retailer’s job is to serve you by getting the comics you want. If he tells you he can’t order a book for you, he is lying. Things are changing every day in the comic industry, and it is becoming more and more important for fans to speak up and be vocal about the comics they want to read. Before I reach the bottom of the page and run out of room, here is my humble selection of books that you should look (or ask) for this month:

Eightball: Dan Clowes has been on a roll lately. Every new issue of Eightball is better than the last, and his story “Caricature” from issue #15 is simply a masterpiece. Hopefully Clowes can keep his winning streak going with the latest issue, Eightball #16, which should be out in November from Fantagraphics. Look for a new installment of “Ghost World,” as well as several other stories in color and black-and-white. Write to Fantagraphics at 7563 lake City Way NE, Seattle, WA 98115 for more information and a free catalog.

32 Stories: Everyone’s talking about Adrian Tomine‘s Optic Nerve, and this graphic novel will give you some idea why. This collection reprints all of Tomine’s minicomic versions of Optic Nerve, and it offers an interesting look into the development of a young artist. You can see Tomine experimenting with different techniques and styles as the stories progress. For more information and a catalog, write to Drawn & Quarterly Publications at 5550 Jeanne Mance Street #16, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4K6.

TUG & buster: Hopefully you’ve heard something about this comic before. In case you haven’t, it tells the tale of TUG, a silent tough guy and his sycophantic sidekick, buster. Marc Hempel is a truly insightful humorist, and with TUG & buster he turns his eye to the myth of the ideal male for some serious laughs. You can find this fun series, released by Art and Soul Comics starting in November, in your local comic store.

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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