“Jim Osborne : The Black Prince Of The Underground” Proves It Wasn’t All Peace And Love With The “Flower Power” Generation

If you’re going to San Francisco —

Fuck the “flowers in your hair” stuff and forget the “gentle people” — you’d do better to keep an eye out for the speed freaks, junkies, pickpockets, gutter-dwelling lowlifes, psychotic serial killers, devil-worshipers, and predators of every stripe. The Mamas And The Papas may not know about these folks, but former underground enfant terrible Jim Osborne was very familiar with them, given that he drew them. He wrote about them. He got right inside their heads. And, as the years progressed, he became one of them.

Okay, sure, Osborne didn’t kill anyone (other than, over time, himself), but he was arguably the most complex figure to emerge from the underground comix scene, an incomparable illustrator with talent to spare and a meticulous eye for detail, his work never less than desperately, harrowingly, soul-deep ugly — so much so that even people who cut their teeth on the likes of S. Clay Wilson are often shocked and disturbed by our guy Jim’s hopelessly depraved visions of a fallen world. Wilson, you see, almost always gave readers a safe “out” by being so outlandish, so beyond the pale, that the utter absurdity of even his most extreme strips rendered them “unrealistic” by default. Osborne, by contrast (in a manner not unlike the closest thing he probably has to a “spiritual successor,” Joe Coleman) offered up fever-dream scenarios that were all too plausible, at the least, often just plain all too real. You could see this shit happening if the thin veneer of civilization ever slipped, on either a collective or an individual level. “Visceral” was the starting point for Osborne’s comix, and where they went from there —

But let’s talk about where we are right now : it’s probably well past time for a reasonably comprehensive collection of Osborne’s work, but editor/compiler Patrick Rosenkranz (who has my eternal thanks for not referring to himself as a “curator”), the pre-eminent historian/scholar of the underground in this day and age, has gone well above and beyond with his just-released Jim Osborne : The Black Prince Of The Underground, published under the auspices of Gary Groth’s “street cred” Fantagarphics Underground label and loaded with 120-plus pages of Osborne’s most eyeball-raping stuff, which is to say — bad dreams, here we come. There is no “unseeing” what’s in these pages.

To that end, small doses might be the preferred method for the average reader when confronted with something this mentally and spiritually toxic, but me? I devoured the book’s entire contents in one sleep-deprived evening, my jaw literally agape as I took in these ecstatic (in the truest sense of the word) hell-scapes originally created for publications ranging from the notorious Yellow Dog and Bijou Funnies all the way “up” to National Lampoon. I felt like I needed a brain-scaldingly hot shower afterwards, it’s true, but it’s testament to how immersive a collection this chronologically-presented assemblage of nightmarish id-explosions is that not only did I not want to put it down, I didn’t want it to be over. I know, I know — I need some serious help.

Roll call : murder! Sacrilege! Debauchery! Demonology! Conspiracy! Like a modern-day William Blake by way of the aforementioned Messrs. Wilson and Coleman, with a dash of Mack White at the margins, Osborne didn’t so much draw as he used his pencils, pens, and brushes as implements of exorcism, emptying the darkest corners of both conscious and subconscious mind onto the page with an exacting eye, a furiously-moving hand, and an utter lack of fucks to give. He’s not opposed to seeing the “funny side” when it presents itself, but more often than not the humor is as black and twisted as everything else on the metaphorical menu, and cuts just as deeply. This is art fully weaponized, with a goal of leaving no surviving comfortable delusions.

Providing absolutely invaluable context to these black-as-the-worst-night-of-your-life proceedings is Dennis Dread’s introductory essay/retrospective focusing on the totality of Osborne’s life and work, charting his trajectory from raw-but-talented Texas wannabe-illustrator to something approaching underground “superstar” in San Francisco to his long descent into the role of creatively dead alcoholic, finally ending as a tragic early victim of his own excess — along the way somehow finding time to embark upon a doomed marriage, out-live a younger brother he loved dearly, date an influential early-days female punk singer, even befriend notorious iconoclast/heretic Anton LaVey and rise to the level of “High Priest” in his Church of Satan. What a long, strange trip it’s been? You’d better believe it.

Even just a few short years ago, the idea that the man who created such memorable works that you wish you could forget such as Body And Soul and Men’s Lounge, The Tampico Hotel – 3 A.M. would have a lavishly-produced compendium such as this one dedicated to preserving his legacy of artistic nihilism would have been unthinkable, even if he was one of the foremost cartoonists of his generation in terms of sheer, unbridled talent (perhaps rivaled in the underground only by Guy Colwell, who likewise exhibited a breathtaking stylistic range), but the dogged determination of the indefatigable Rosenkranz, combined with the small-print-run economic model of FU (we get it, Gary, I promise!) have made possible what once was anything but — and unlike other books in the range, this one even offers nice value for money, boasting an entirely-reasonable $24.99 cover price. Certainly Jim Osborne : The Dark Prince Of The Underground will only appeal to a very narrow readership, but for those who fit into that small sliver, it’s something beyond an “essential” purchase and very near to a revelatory one. One of the most important, and defiantly repulsive, historical releases of the year.

 

A Perfect Ending? Noah Van Sciver’s “A Perfect Failure : Fante Bukowski Three” (Advance Review)

All good things, as they say — and while Noah Van Sciver’s annual (or thereabouts) Fantagraphics-published Fante Bukowski series has been a very good thing indeed, by and large (we’ll get to its “big flaw” in due course), it’s usually a safe bet to wrap up a project before any kind of creative staleness sets in. To that end, then, when I heard that A Perfect Failure : Fante Bukowski Three would mark the final chapter of what what was now officially a trilogy, it sounded to me like the right thing to do — but now that the book has arrived (or, whoops, will arrive soon, this is an advance review, after all), has Van Sciver indeed checked out at the correct time?

Okay, fair enough, Noah himself isn’t “checking out” of cartooning (in point of fact, 2018 has been as busy a year as ever for him, with a new issue of Blammo hitting a few months ago and a new graphic novel from Uncivilized Books, One Dirty Tree, hot off the presses as I write this), but his longest-form project to date is now “a wrap,” and by the time the calendar turns, I’m guessing that there will be one detailed critical analysis after another coming down the pipeline poking and prodding at every square inch of the story in its newly-minted totality. Might as well start the “party” here.

Don’t let the more “upscale” format — I swear, this “award-winning,” mass-market-friendly design looks ready for Oprah’s Book Club, if such a thing still exists — fool you, Fante is still one shaky footstep above skid row (except when that tenuous foothold slips), still oozing with unearned entitlement, still entirely oblivious to his annoying self-importance at best, self-righteousness at worst. In other words, he’s the same hopeless case we’ve come to know and in no way love, even if he’s impossible to hate despite his best efforts. And yet —

While any actual improvement in his craft continues to elude Columbus, Ohio’s most clueless adoptive son, the greatest undiscovered literary talent of his generation (in his own mind) spends much of this final installment of his “adventures” with the fame and adoration he craves finally within his grasp, yet frustratingly out of reach — even if he doesn’t always know it. The less said about that in specific terms the better at this pre-release stage, but this much I’ll divulge without any pesky pangs of guilt, or even conscience : his gig ghost-writing a vapid teen celebrity’s “autobiography” only looks like the mythical “big break” he’s been hoping for — behind the curtain, forces well beyond, and entirely outside of, his control are maneuvering him toward superstardom for reasons all their own. Unless they change their minds, of course.

All this plays out against a narrative through-line of family drama that sees Fante return to his old Denver stomping grounds to either bury the hatchet with his father or bury it in his skull, and while the two couldn’t be more different in some respects, it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree as one compulsive, self-absorbed “mansplainer” meets another in a test of wills that will surely test yours — even as you laugh, furiously and continuously, in spite of yourself. Get ready for pretentiousness vs. “tough love” with Van Sciver, as is his custom, absolutely “nailing it” in terms of dialogue and characterization.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, it’s not a dead end that awaits Fante when all is said and done, but a more clear shot at something roughly approximating happiness than he’s either earned or deserves. He could (hell, probably will?) fuck it all up sooner or later, of course, but a chance at love is there for him if he has the guts to grow up a bit and take it. Which brings me to —

If there’s one knock I have on this series in general (and, again, forgive me while I do my level best to refrain from “spoiling” any plot specifics) it’s the rather Tomine-esque “saviors with hearts of gold who exist solely to redeem eternally-adolescent men” portrayal of women that Van Sciver indulges in — but where his females fail to convince in terms of being fully-realized characters, they do at least (and finally) rise above being mere plot devices for the bulk of this finale even if they still, ultimately, serve that function as the metaphorical buzzer runs out. The fact that it seems trickier than it should be for a cartoonist of Van Sciver’s skills (speaking of, his illustrations and color work are both in top form here, but it’s not like that was ever in doubt) to give readers something approaching realistic, relatable women is depressing, to be sure, but he’s making steps in the right direction here, and that’s at least — something? In any case, if he ever happens upon this review, I hope he’ll take this as the nudge in the right direction it’s intended to be rather than as an antagonistic chastising or, worse yet, a brow-beating.

To answer our titular question, then, A Perfect Failure : Fante Bukowski Three probably isn’t quite a “perfect” ending, but it’s by and large a very satisfying one, and I’m going to miss this dumb, talent-less prick more than I should. Van Sciver’s sharp satirical eye and wit will no doubt find new targets worthy of his unique brand of naturalistic, entirely unforced evisceration, but from dive bars to pretentious art openings to seedy motels to seedier alleyways to seediest-of-all ‘zine shows (oh yeah, we get one of those in here), this has been a fun ride, and one that’s offered plenty by way of inadvertently “deep thoughts” along the way. Noah, take a bow.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/09/2018 – 09/15/2018, The Latest From Mini Kus!

It feels like it’s been awhile since out Latvian friends at Kus! unleashed a new foursome of Mini Kus! releases an an always-undeserving world, but fear not, they’re back with their latest set (#s 67-70, respectively, priced at $6 each — but I’ll hook you up with a link to buy them all together at a package discount price at the end of this Round-Up column), and I was particularly excited to check these out since they’re all by cartoonists whose work I’m more or less entirely unfamiliar with. Let’s see if they managed to make a fan of this grizzled old comics veteran —

First up is Mariana Pita’s Day Tour, an intriguing little story about the joys of doing nothing versus the sheer effort it takes to do even the most simple things sometimes. It’s an ambiguous tale, and in the end you’re left to wonder whether or not the author/protagonist bothered to get dressed, go outside, grab a coffee, catch the subway, etc. — or merely thought the better of it and imagined such an admittedly low-key excursion. The impetus for this possible “adventure”? Someone called our “hero” precisely that on social media, her dog disagreed, and she decided to go out and give some blood to prove her fan right, and her mouthy canine wrong. Treading some similar thematic ground as Tara Booth’s justly-celebrated (and, as of a few hours ago, Ignatz Award-winning) How To Be Alive, but with a technological twist, Pita illustrates this mini in a friendly, welcoming style that plays fast and loose with lines and washes everything in rich, expressive watercolors. A genuine gem.

Leisure, or a rough approximation thereof, is also a central theme in Erlend Peder Kvam’s Weekend, an explosion of bright audacity that sees a cheerful worker drone named Silvan clocking out for the week and spending Saturday and Sunday with his twin children, who want their old man to — critique their latest art projects? Among other things. Not unlike Becca Toobin’s recent Retrofit/Big Planet release Understanding, Kvam’s mini celebrates free time and excess but ultimately shows it to be a kind of harrowing routine in its own right, and one fraught with perils lurking just beneath the celebratory veneer. A fun comic to look at, to be sure, but one that hides deep layers of confusion and foreboding under its aggressively sunny exterior.

Marlene Krause is a deliriously talented cartoonist, but she simply needs more room than a 26-page mini offers to tell the story she wants to tell with Maud, a short-form biography of pioneering female tattooist Maud Wagner. Rendered in lavish colored pencils, the illustrations in this comic are all suitable for framing, but the uber-condensed narrative ends up selling the material short, and what we’re left with is a “Cliffs Notes” version of what appears to have been a truly amazing life. It’s to Krause’s great credit that I wanted more from this story than the strictures of the format allow for, and who knows? Maybe she’ll expand this out to an honest-to-goodness “graphic novel.” Or at least a “graphic novella.” As it is, I can only chalk this up to being a gorgeous experiment that ultimately doesn’t quite achieve its very ambitious goals — although certainly not for lack of trying.

They tell me that life is all about the simple pleasures (like, say, comics), and if that’s true, the nameless, letter-writing hermit that “stars” in Lote Vilma Vitina’s Worms, Clouds, Everything must be the happiest creature alive. A more abstract mini than this I can scarcely imagine — why the reader is being sent this missive, what (if anything) the hermit hopes to achieve by sending it, etc. being left entirely up to you to determine for yourself — but it’s so spectacularly charming in its simplicity that I almost get the feeling that nothing less than the secrets to, as Douglas Adams would put it, “life, the universe, and everything” are hidden here, in plain sight, among the clouds, trees, worms, grass, and mushrooms. Lots and lots and lots of mushrooms. I absolutely loved this gentle, undoubtedly thoughtful, quietly majestic little story — I just wish that I could adequately say why. Or maybe I just did?

All in all, then, the latest quartet of books in the Mini Kus! line offers tremendous variety, strikingly distinct and idiosyncratic visions, and challenging new vistas that are sure to expand your idea of what the comics medium can achieve. Hell, they even give one reason to re-examine their preconceptions of what comics are “all about” in the first place. Some are more successful than others in realizing their aims, but all are worth your time.

Next week’s Reading Round-Up looks pretty well set in stone thanks to some new minis just arrived from good friend of the site Brian Canini, but I may sneak in another item or two, as well, depending on what the USPS has in store for me in the days ahead. In the meantime, if you want to partake in  what is very probably the best “value for money” deal in comics, all four of the new Mini Kus! offerings are available directly from the publisher for the bargain price of $19, which includes free shipping! Check it out here :https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/31180646/mini-ku-67-68-69-70

Okay, that’ll do it here, time to go hit twitter and see who else took home a brick at the Ignatzes this year —

 

Welcome To The Clown Castle : Alex Graham’s “Cosmic BE-ING” #6

Does anybody really like clowns?

I never have, and I can’t think of any of my friends who do — assuming the subject has ever even come up. My wife damn sure doesn’t like them — in fact, they freak her the fuck out on a core level, and to a degree that most people reserve for things like spiders, or heights. Not that she’s terribly fond of either of those things — but I digress. In any case, my original point, I think, still stands : nobody really likes clowns all that much. So don’t ask me where the old saying “everybody loves a clown” comes from.

I don’t know how Alex Graham feels about clowns, though. It’s hard to tell, even though a veritable gaggle of them are at the center of the latest issue of her solo comic, Cosmic BE-ING #6. They live together in a magical castle that appears to be smack-dab in the middle of a desert. Some of them are druggies, although their narcotic of choice is never specified. Some of them have trouble holding onto repetitious, dead-end jobs. Some of them have vaguely sexual yearnings for their fellow clowns. Some of them sit on the couch and read or watch TV.

Yup, these clowns are people very much like you and me — except for that whole magic castle thing. And, ya know, being clowns.

I wondered where Graham was going to go with her series now that the long-running “Angloid” strip has concluded (and been collected, but we already talked about that a couple weeks back), and the answer is — I still don’t know. Which is exactly what I was hoping for, if you can believe that. Dare I attempt to explain what I mean? Oh, if you insist, I’ll do my best —

Graham is one of the rare breed of cartoonists whose instincts and ideas and imagination and even whims or flights of fancy I just implicitly trust. Where she goes, I’m willing and eager to follow because she hasn’t let me down yet. She’s in hitherto-uncharted territory now thematically, with a slightly “tweaked” cartooning style to match — a generally thicker line, more shading and cross-hatching, less-cluttered panels with more “negative space” — and the results, so far, are impressive. Make that quite impressive.

Free from the constraints of long-form narrative, Graham is doing one of my favorite things — throwing a lot of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. Her two lengthier “clown” strips in this book (which, incidentally, offers great value for money — magazine format, full color, on thick, glossy paper for ten bucks? Don’t ask me how that even makes sense for a self-publisher like her with extremely limited distribution) touch briefly on issues of addiction, lethargy, useless toil (as most work is — her clowns taking it to absurd extremes by literally reporting to “work centers” where they type gibberish on paper all day long for no discernible reason), sexual ambiguity, and the joys and freedoms offered by pure randomness and leisure. Somewhere in the middle of all that is something approaching the outlines of at least a point of view, maybe even an actual philosophy, but Graham is taking her time, staking out her territory, moving from the outskirts in. And she’s doing it all with as sharp and keen a sense of observational and absurdist humor as ever.

Don’t misunderstand me : I hope that Graham does, in fact, pursue a “graphic novel”-length type of story again at some point — I just hope that she takes her time getting there. What’s the rush, after all, when the “side-steps” between “Big Project A” and “Big Project B” are this unpredictable, exciting, and entertaining? She can do more completely off-the-wall stuff like using an honest-to-goodness typewriter to fill in her word balloons and caption boxes, or interjecting “throw-away” characters with vaguely elephantine heads, for as long as she needs to until she feels something coalescing, congealing, coagulating — until the next step presents itself. A good artist always knows when the time is right — and Graham is a damn good artist.

The last, short strip in this comic had me a little worried, frankly, about Graham’s state of mind — read it and you’ll see what I mean — but she swears by the end that “it’s all good,” as the young folks say (or said, at any rate, since I don’t know if they still do), and I’m hoping that’s true because creative genius (there, I said it) this singular doesn’t come around too often. If she allows herself more freedom to follow whatever muse(s) flutter across her mind, if she does more comics like this that are content to just be whatever the hell they are, if she “feels her way forward” toward wherever it is that she’s going? I think she may end up being one of the most important cartoonists of her generation — she’s certainly one of the most interesting already.

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I have no idea whether or not it’s available anywhere else at this point, but last I checked our friend Austin English had some copies of Cosmic BE-ING #6 for sale on at his Domino Books website, so if you’re going to order it — and you’d have to be insane not to — do so at http://www.dominobooks.org/store.html

 

And They Call It “Petey & Pussy : Puppy Love”

It’s a rough old world, and sometimes you’re just in the mood for a good laugh — or, better yet, hundreds of them in glorious, mind-numbing succession. If that sounds like something you could really go for in the face of the relentless onslaught of bad news that reality has become, then congratulations are in order, because you’ve definitely come to the right comics blog — this time, at any rate.

John Kerschbaum is far from the most prolific cartoonist working today (although he’s prone to turn up when and where you least expect it, and never seems to lack for reasonably high-profile gigs), but some things are worth the wait, and the decade between his first Fantagraphics book, the now-legendary Petey & Pussy, and its brand-spanking-new sequel, Petey & Pussy : Puppy Love, appears to have been put to good use, because he’s pulled out all the stops to deliver an uproarious, superbly-illustrated, eminently relatable series of intertwined misadventures of very questionable taste that is by turns charming, nauseating, depraved, down-to-earth, sarcastic, and wonderfully, gleefully, smartly stupid.

Go on, say it : kinda like life itself.

For those unfamiliar with the basic set-up of this infrequent “series” (and it really is basic) : human-headed cat Pussy (make that very human-headed, complete with receded hairline and glasses) and equally-beyond-anthropomorphic dog Petey (whose noggin also bears all the hallmarks of post-middle age) are “property” of an octogenarian, neurologically-impaired single (possibly widowed?) woman whose internet addiction precludes her from actually taking care of her three pets (the third being the spectacularly annoying Bernie The Bird, whose head is also — ah, you already know by now), but never mind, they’ve got plenty to occupy their time : Pussy’s short-tempered, irritable, self-absorbed, and a degenerate fucking gambler; Petey’s neurotic and compulsive and never met a responsibility he wasn’t eager to dodge at any cost — and Bernie, for his part, appears to be in love this time out, but the object of his affections may simply turn out to be his own goddamn reflection.

As is the tradition with the best of “funny animal” comics, a series of everyday occurrences spirals into surreal, out-of-control absurdity by dint of sheer cluelessness, obstinance, incompetence, and misunderstanding in this book, but Kerschbaum’s straight-up genius at the sadly disappearing art of story construction ensures that seemingly-disjointed plot threads such as watching over a litter of newborn puppies, hunting down (or luring out) squirrels who are making life miserable, and avoiding “the snip” at the vet’s office dovetail and/or crash headlong into each other in uniquely inventive ways that always feel like they’re being pulled out of thin air, yet somehow feel intrinsically right — if not exactly, ya know, logical.

A sure sign of skilled humor cartooning, however, is how well it manages to convince readers to shelve their preconceived notions of how things “should” be in favor of how they are within the framework of a deliberately weird, hermetically-sealed world of the artist’s personal invention that operates according to its own set of — what, rules? Laws? Neither seems to apply here, but hopefully you know what I’m getting at — and one thing I’ll say with absolute and unequivocal certainty : Kerschbaum succeeds at getting you to go with his flow with admirable ease and somehow manages to win you over with the most thoroughly unlikable characters to ever capture your heart. Petey & Pussy : Puppy Love casts a spell perhaps entirely in spite of itself, then, but it’s nevertheless a bizarrely unbreakable one, and even though your sides will be hurting like hell from laughing so hard by the time the last page rolls around, you’ll still in no way be ready for it to be over.

Holy “Roly Poly”

Not to sound too dramatic — or maybe that should be melodramatic — right out of the gate, but it strikes me that any way you look at it, the much-vaunted “age of reason” is over.

Oh, sure, social and political commentators have been telling us at least since the elevation of Donald Trump to the presidency, if not earlier, that we are living in a “post-truth world,” but I think that misses the larger point : things are happening so fast, and they’re coming at us from so many directions simultaneously, that for many, it’s simply flat-out impossible to determine what the truth even is anymore.

Consider, if you will : in Dez Vylenz’ intriguing-if-flawed documentary The Mindscape Of Alan Moore, the noted comics author and occultist opines that human culture was essentially analogous with ice for the first x-million years of our existence as a species, given that the  amount of information and knowledge took literally aeons to effectively double; then we entered a stage where culture was comparable to liquid since the amount of information out there was doubling every few centuries, then every decade or two — and now, with the total available amount of information doubling dozens, if not hundreds, of times daily, culture is effectively turning into steam.

Okay, it’s maybe something of an over-simplification on Moore’s part, but that doesn’t mean he’s necessarily wrong. The larger cultural zeitgeist is completely amorphous right now, in a constant state of flux — very little, if anything, makes any sense, and by the time we’ve gotten around to sucking in a good, deep breath and taking stock of the situation, whaddya know? It’s all changed — again. All of which leads me to my “big question” for the day : if the here-and-now is this convoluted, this indecipherable, this downright unknowable — then what of the future?

It seems to me that all bets are off, and that anything and everything from nuclear annihilation to a leisurely, post-work utopia are “on the table” to one degree or another, with several possibilities that fall somewhere between the two emerging as front-running possibilities; but it’s not really what will or might happen that I’m particularly concerned with for purposes of this review — rather, I’m wondering where our conception of the future stands right at this moment.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer to that. Fortunately, Brazilian cartoonist Daniel Semanas does.

Set in 2024, Semanas’ debut graphic novel, Roly Poly — subtitled Vol. 1, Phanta’s Story — posits a society that makes no real sense, but that actually makes perfect sense (if that even makes sense) if we simply go with the digital flow we’re already swept up in. His protagonist, Korean super-brawler Phanta, is locked in a battle of wits and wills with a social media “celebrity” whose obsession with her betrays all the sublimated sexual longing of a typical “love/hate relationship,” albeit one that’s amped up to 11, and then some, with her only “solution,”  at least as she sees it, being to “beat” him by topping his number of online followers. In her hyper-competitive zeal she launches a gambit rife with something well beyond desperation, but don’t tell her that — she’s nothing if not fiercely confident, and now she’s going to worm her way into becoming the newest member of the world’s most popular “K-Pop” group (I don’t think they’re referred to as “bands”) by first infiltrating a neo-psychedelic drug cult that they’re affiliated with. From there, she figures, the pixellated sky’s the limit.

If that sounds crazy, trust me when I say that it looks even crazier : Semanas’ visual arsenal betrays influences as wide-ranging as art deco, futurism (of course), Manga, and even pop art, but the resultant mixture, when filtered through his own kaleidoscopic perception, is quite unlike anything else committed to the comics page previously — this is singular cartooning in the strictest definition of that term, and you know from page one that the illustration both can and should do the bulk of the storytelling “work” in this book.

To his great credit, assuming such a personage as “Semanas The Writer” exists, he gets the hell out of the way and only occasionally punctuates his visually-based narrative with the bare minimum necessary amount of sharp, economic dialogue, apparently (and correctly) viewing words — descriptive language in particular — in purely utilitarian terms. Don’t take that to mean that this is a “quick” read, by any stretch — you’ll spend far too much time unpacking the densely-layered veritable vocabulary of imagery on every page, in every panel, to get anything less than your money’s worth out of this thing — but it’s nevertheless a breakneck one, given that Semanas starts with his foot all the way down on the accelerator and never lets up.

And this is all on the purely liminal level, mind you. Underneath that, there is an honest-to-goodness cosmology being established right beneath our noses, one that centers on the power of belief to shape one’s view of reality, and the tension that necessarily exists between individual and group perceptions of the world and everyone and everything within it and, by extension, group perceptions versus broader, consensus, actual reality — assuming such a thing even exists. Or that it ever did.

On the technical and production side of the ledger, publisher Fantagraphics has pulled out all the stops to present this challenging, consciousness-expanding material in a format that it not only deserves, but demands, the slim and sturdy hardcover book — printed on thick, glossy paper that accentuates the richness of Semanas’ color palette, especially on the numerous black-bordered pages — enclosed within an open-ended slipcover, but while style (indeed, a flood of at-first-glance contradictory styles, plural) is fully integrated with substance in the world of 2024, at the end of the day a clear line from here to there (or should that be then?) is left to the reader to determine for themselves, the heavy-handed “cautionary tale” tropes that ultimately undercut Rick Remender and Sean Murphy’s Tokyo Ghost (the only other comic to seriously attempt what Semanas is doing here, and with far less satisfactory results) nowhere to be found within the framework of a story that reflects its own subject matter by plunging readers in at the deep end because, hey, that’s the only end that exists anymore.

What that means — at least in this critic’s estimation — is that Roly Poly is something as utterly confounding as it is absorbing, as exotic as it is believable, as multi-faceted as it is entirely upfront and “in your face”. If that sounds contradictory, it is, but come on — this is the first holistically-constructed comic book vision of the future that’s extrapolated from a present we don’t even fully understand. How could it be anything else?

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 09/02/2018 – 09/08/2018, “Bald Knobber” Issues 5 And 6, And More Robert Sergel

Picking right back up where we left off last week, our foursome this time around includes the last two issues of Robert Sergel’s Bald Knobber, as well as two more recent comics by our man of the hour, Joe Bonaparte and September 12th And Other Stories.

The major revelation that came at the tail end of the previous issue gives rise to a secret and uneasy truce between Cole and the individual who burned down his mother’s home in Bald Knobber #5 (how’s that for assiduously avoiding anything that could be labeled a “spoiler”?), but the underlying tension between our troubled (and troubling) protagonist and the author of his sorrows (some of ’em, at any rate) ends up momentarily usurped from the foreground thanks to the return of a former nemesis out for his pound of flesh. I remarked in my previous Round-Up column that the clue which revealed the identity of the arsonist was plucked straight out of John Carpenter’s Halloween, but this chapter reminded me more (much more, in fact) of Rob Zombie’s remake, in particular the extended “re-imagining” of the origins and formative experiences of future psychopath Michael Myers. That’s meant as a compliment, by the way, since that was the best part part of the film.

Sergel adds to the page count slightly but keeps his price tag at two bucks for Bald Knobber #6, which sees Cole begrudgingly accept (or so it seems) that things are what they are at home (in other words, fucked up), while at the same time setting the stage for taking his frustrations with the world out on at least one particular kid at school, possibly more. The story is left on an oblique and highly effective splash page of — shit, again, that would be telling — that’s pretty unsurprising given the trajectory of events here, but is nevertheless absolutely bone-chilling. A superb final installment to a jaw-droppingly good, and extremely disturbing, series that breathes some much-needed life back into the “alienated youth” sub-genre.

Joe Bonaparte is a marked thematic departure for Sergel, even if his hyper-clean, stark, formally expressive cartooning style remains essentially the same. I didn’t know the story about Napoleon’s brother and his supposed encounter with the much-whispered-about “Jersey Devil” (hell, I didn’t even know the guy lived in New Jersey), but I do now, and whaddya know — this one checks out, at least as far as any dusty “urban legend” of this sort can. A fascinating little yarn presented in a larger (think roughly 1/3 the size of a standard comic book, or thereabouts) format that is charming in its own way, but also kinda sad and even a little unsettling. You’ll definitely get your three dollars’ worth out of this one as it demands re-reading and closer examination.

September 12th And Other Stories is a nicely-put-together collection of previously-unpublished (I think, at any rate) shorts by Sergel just released by Kilgore Books (which means it’s the only comic we’ve looked at this week or last that isn’t self-published) that represents nice value for money at $6 for 32 pages between quality cardstock covers, but I’d be lying if I said every story was a “home run” here. Certainly the titular tale, featuring what I assume to be a stand-in for the author himself navigating an immediately post-9/11 New York City and finding the forced attempts to re-establish normalcy to be the most abnormal thing about the situation hits all the right notes and lingers in the mind, and “TSA Cares” functions as a kind of “sequel” to it (even though it precedes it in the book’s “running order”) by showing the casual nature of the cheap power plays certain “authority” figures seem to delight in since the tragic events of 2001 gave them near-unchecked power to fuck with your life just because they feel like it, but the two explicitly anti-Trump strips in the book (“The Best Eight Seconds Of Every Day” and “Future Presidents”), while obviously sound and accurate in their reasoning, are simply too obvious for my tastes, while another strip that touches on vaguely “Trumpian” cult-of-personality themes, entitled “Power,” is probably the most ambitious of the bunch, and will remind you why you hate self-help gurus — not that you probably ever forgot. “Empathy,” finally, is an effective little autobio number about a regrettable run-in with a complete asshole. There’s nothing on offer here that falls outside the wheelhouse of any number of “indie” cartoonists, don’t get me wrong, but Sergel mines these well-worn veins better than most and some Dan Clowes influence bleeding in around the edges of many of his illustrations gives this comic a different visual “vibe” than the other books we’ve talked about. Not as essential purchase in my estimation, but the strongest strips definitely make it worth a buy if you opt to go that route. Which I did.

And that’s a wrap for this week! Our next Round-Up is set in stone thanks to the arrival today of the four newest Mini Kus! publications from our excellent Latvian friends, so join me back here in seven days for that. In the meantime, if you decide to take the plunge on some Sergel (and this is the point at which I’m duty-bound to remind you that Bald Knobber is now available as a collected edition published by Secret Acres) — and you really should — his Storenvy site is here :http://robertsergel.storenvy.com/