The four-panel diary gag strip is a form that has been run into the ground. Much of this has to do with there only being so much that can be wrung out of the minor frustrations of modern life when the goal is to elicit safe, knowing chuckles. However, in Alex Krokus’ Loud & Smart we see an artist taking this familiar structure and using it to bring the reader to that kind of laughter that is on the verge of screaming. Krokus digs deep into the humor of discomfort and depression to create a series of gag strips where we laugh not because we also know the timely cultural reference but because we are well versed in the anxiousness of living in an era of uncertainty and cynicism. While this collection might begin roughly on the more pedestrian diary comics foot, Krokus finds both his aesthetic and his voice as he loosens up his inking and his adherence to formula. His loose grey brushwork comes into sync with his wobbly black line and fantastic sense of performance in his human animal hybrid characters to complement his cutting sense of humor.
One of the primary sources of comedy in Loud & Smart comes from exploring the constant simmer of anxiety of an ever-changing world. A series of strips peppered throughout the collection deals with Alex’s fear of being behind the times when it comes to drinking seltzer; so much so that he flees a party where everyone is drinking it only to later break down and buy some. Unfortunately for him by this point everyone is into eating slices of American cheese, leaving him once again dejected. This is an ecstatic truth but no less a real one, and it is reflected again in a strip where all the characters are telling Alex that he has to watch “The Show” until he has completely lost interest in doing so. It is the kind of humor that only fully makes sense when all the glittering veneer of living in the 21st century has been scraped off and the promise of consumer goods and entertainment revealed to be a sham.
In this way the comedy of Loud & Smart is both timeless and completely of its time. One strip features an archetypal bully demanding his victim hand over his lunch money electronically. While another strip makes a joke about having too many open tabs in your browser as a sign of depression. The joke only fully works in a present where the excitement over social media has turned to the self-hated of constantly checking to see if our post got any likes. Yet laughing at the void of our existential dread is nothing new.
For as much as the comedy in Loud & Smart is derived from society trying to grapple with new technology it is also about the conflicting ideas of people currently in their 20s and 30s and those of their parents’ generation. There is a strip where Alex ponders if his father had admitted to his mother that he was polyamorous perhaps they wouldn’t have gotten divorced, to which Alex and his partner explode into laughter. That even the characters can make a joke of polyamory and divorce shows how little taboo these ideas hold for people of Krokus’ generation.
Another strip, which reflects similar changes to established mores, makes light of how children are something people have either by mistake or because they are bored. Just as some strips allow us to laugh at the way we try to fill the hollowness in our lives with technology, these allow us to laugh at the hollowness of our parents’ lives and by extension all human lives. This is a theme best exemplified in the strip where Alex argues about elves and dwarves in the Lord of the Rings movies with his hospital bed-ridden father. A lesser artist would have tried to milk some of the drama from this moment while Krokus finds both the humor and deeper truth is in capturing the mundanity in its midst.
The continual discomfort of everyday life is another main theme from which Krokus skillfully extracts comedy. Several strips deal with the travails of living in New York City such as prolonged unavoidable eye contact or having to dealing with overly hot summers by camping out inside subway cars to soak in the air conditioning. There is also the all too real experience of chatting with a couple in an Icelandic hostel who brought along their good-for-nothing pal Dreadlock Jimmy. Even if these particular experiences are alien to the reader, we have all been in equally cringeworthy or embarrassing circumstances.
Krokus is also not above delving into gross-out humor to elicit laughs of discomfort as several comics deal with characters urinating all over public bathrooms and in a standout long-form story Alex faces the embarrassment of having co-workers know he clogged the toilet at work. We wince at his behavior when he is unable to enjoy a board game among friends due to his hyper competitive nature making him unable to relax and enjoy the moment. When Alex tries to find joy in small things such as the new Samurai Jack series he is only let down by his own high expectations. Making the only reliable joys he finds simple vices like eating a pint of ice cream or smoking weed.
Another of the key parts of Krokus’ comedic voice in Loud & Smart is when he pivots away from strips centered on his experiences and focuses on the large cast of characters surrounding him. An early strip signals this choice by breaking the fourth wall as Krokus’ animal avatar comes up with new characters such as Pasta Dave and Winemouth. Alex might think Pasta Dave a fool for his one-dimensional love of pasta, but in later strips he will be jealous of a photo where he sees how happy Pasta Dave is attending a pasta convention.
Just as Pasta Dave gives Krokus a straw man to help make his joke about the way in which we humor our friends, the unnamed punk couple grousing that they hate all their friends lets him tackle the muddled feelings we all have towards the people in our lives without needing to mine a direct incident in his life. Characters can serve as the joke in and of themselves, such as the ludicrous Frog with Lipstick who flirtingly plays to the reader while caressing an eggplant. Strongest of these extra characters is the hapless hammerhead Craig whose own neuroses function as a heightened mirror version of Alex’s own, climaxing in a strip where Craig smashes apart a mirror due to being stressed out about his inability to be chill.
It’s impressive to see how much Krokus honed his abilities as a cartoonist and a humorist in the roughly two years worth of strips that Loud & Smart collects. He is still consistently putting strips out online that push past the high bar he has set for himself here. It will be interesting to see how far he can take this form as the one long-form story in the collection shows he is more than capable of extending his comedic voice beyond four panels. Regardless, Loud & Smart is a strong cornerstone to build his body of work on.
Alex Krokus (W/A) • Pyrite Press, $12.00
Review by Robin Enrico