Life Is A Quietly Desperate Business : E.A. Bethea’s “Francis Bacon”

Okay, so, to get it out of the way first, if you’re wondering which of the two notable Francis Bacons that E.A. Bethea’s newest comic (her second with Domino Books), Francis Bacon, is purportedly “about,” it’s the 20th century British painter, but if you know Bethea’s work you’ll know that oftentimes where or who or what she starts with is simply a springboard, an “entry point” into a long, multi-faceted rumination on subjects various and sundry that always and ultimately bear some sort of tangential connection to the one that she was focused on at the outset, but those connections are uniformly of a highly personal, at times even intuitive, nature, so really — when you open this up, expect to be taken on a trip to places, physical and otherwise, that are far afield from what the title would lead you to believe you were in for.

Which isn’t to say that Bethea gives Bacon short shrift here, far from it — his art, his life, and his obsessions all serve as breadcrumb trails in a vast labyrinth of speculations, reminiscences, observations, and delineations that coalesce into a kind of sentimental journey through Bethea’s own emotional and experiential history, the de facto map she’s constructing for us being one where what things mean to her assume privilege and precedence over what they may actually be. In other words, it’s Bacon’s story in part, but it’s Bethea’s comic in whole.

And hey, why shouldn’t it be? She’s the one who made it, after all. But to call it a work of straight memoir would be to sell it short — rather, this is a tapestry : of memories, of influences, of pop culture touchstones, of places and people known. The old cliche goes that life is about the journey, and maybe it is, but Bethea’s never been afraid to hit the pause button and reflect on what she’s both gained and lost along the way. The flotsam and jetsam of an existence are neither to her — everything means something, everything’s part of something bigger, everything is what it is but is also imbued with so much more than it could ever realize.

Thematically, then, this latest work is very much in keeping with Bethea’s artistic ouevre, but it represents a longer-form and more thorough-going exploration of the themes to which she so frequently returns, namely the transient and impermanent nature of both things and people, the weight and import of memory, the ripple effects of ostensibly small events, and the fragility of this project we call human existence. There’s an undeniable delicacy to her illustrations and her prose, it’s true, but frequently they both hit like a ton of bricks, so you’ll often find yourself lingering for long periods over a choice word or image that resonate with you precisely because of how expertly she’s able to communicate how they resonated with her. All of this matters, maybe especially the little things.

And yet — there is just enough by way of subtle whimsicality in Bethea’s tone to keep this from becoming, as the kids say, a “downer.” Many memories explored here are tinged with a certain amount of regret, both implicit and explicit, but the overall through-line is one that is tonally balanced, magic and loss figuring equally into the equation. Where you’re going matters, sure, but so does how you get there, and in that respect, you literally couldn’t ask for a better guide.
Count me, then, mightily impressed by this comic — as I always am with regard to this particular cartoonist. In fact, it’s no stretch to say it may be Bethea’s most well-realized work to date, the comic she’s been building toward, one piece and one memory at a time, for many years now. Don’t be surprised to find it very near, or even at, the top of many a “best-of” list come year’s end.

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Francis Bacon is available for $8.00 from the Domino Books website at http://dominobooks.org/francisbacon.html

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “65 Bugs” By Dean Sudarsky

Concluding our look at titles currently available from publisher Justin Skarhus’ Entropy Editions we come to catalogue number EE04, 65 Bugs, a formally conservative but conceptually innovative work from Providence’s Dean Sudarsky, who takes the format of the short-form newspaper strip and turns it on its ear by pairing visual simplicity with dense existential complexity to fashion an eight-page mini that exerts a strange hold on readers — or at least it did on this reader — long after the covers are closed. Sex, death, ennui, and the endless search to break free from life’s routines are all touched upon here — among other weighty concerns — but at the end of the day we’re still talking about a mini that is, perhaps against all odds, inherently fun, and if all of that sounds more than a bit contradictory on its face to you, well, that’s as I’m surmising Sudarsky wishes it to be.

Like the other comics in the EE range, then, it’s more than fair to label this as a “challenging” read, but the kicker is that it doesn’t particularly feel like one on first pass-through — sure, there’s a sense of “what exactly am I reading here?” that comfortably segues into “what did I just read here?” when all is said and done, but regardless of how one chooses to answer those questions, I think it’s a relatively safe bet that most readers, perplexed or not, won’t hesitate to call the book enjoyable, even if they’re not exactly certain just what it is that they enjoyed.

Vaguely anthropomorphized insects going about their business, forever contending with the natural elements as well as their own innate abilities (or lack thereof) are as viable a tool as any for exploring quandaries both philosophical and physical, but only because Sudarsky thought of it, which means that we’re firmly in auteur territory with this one, even if the whys and wherefores behind the cartoonist’s creative choices remain forever and just slightly out of reach. I know I’ve racked my brain with questions in regard to both what Sudarsky is saying as well as how he’s trying to say it, but when something feels right and sincere and genuine — as this comic surely does — then there truly does come a point where overthinking things defeats the purpose, and you start to question your own need to figure everything out. Sometimes, after all, artists make the decisions they make on instinct and impulse alone, and while this is a tightly-structured work down to its very core, that doesn’t preclude it from being the product of muse-following, now does it?

What’s not up for debate is Sudarsky’s deep knowledge of the traditions he’s drawing from — as well as drawing upon — in this work. This is smart, solid, informed, and self-aware cartooning that plays to its own strengths while pushing the thematic envelope gently and with a great deal of assurance. It’s a unique comic, absolutely, yet one that is as instantly familiar as it is perplexing. Sudarsky could do dozens, perhaps even hundreds, more pages of strips like these — and my sincere hope is that one day he will — and each would feel its own particular blend of tried-and-true and utterly alien because that dichotomy is baked into the premise on the one hand, and into the artist’s execution of it on the other. That, friends, is as purely skilled as things get in this medium we love so much.

In fairness, however, I can see where those who like a project’s raison d’etre to be stated for them plainly might find this to be something of an extended “WTF moment” — or perhaps even a series of them. But even such an aesthetically conservative reader will never feel completely outside of their “comfort zone” here, only confronted with the fact that perhaps it’s not so comfortable as they’d always assumed. I’m of a mind that such exercises in upending conformity and preconception are almost always of value, but who are we kidding? That’s not a view shared by all. Simply put, then, if this comic sounds like it might not be your cup of tea, then yeah — it probably won’t be.
For the rest of us, though, this is a reading experience rooted in what we know, yet completely different, and at times even in direct opposition, to it. Revealing hidden depths with each successive re-reading, these rank among the eight most provocative and densely-layered pages you’ll read this year — even if they look like anything but.

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65 Bugs is available from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/65-bugs

Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53 Compression” in the “Blackout Edition” variant.

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “The Beast” By Danielle Chenette

Continuing with out perusal of publisher Justin Skarhus’ Entropy Editions offerings, we come to catalogue number EE03, Los Angeles-based cartoonist Danielle Chenette’s The Beast, a deceptively “naive” comic that actually wryly and rather expertly deconstructs everything from the role of myth in society to “gun culture” to sibling dynamics to gaming to toxic masculinity — and somehow manages to do it all with a smile on its face and nary a hint of self-important lecturing. In fact, this unassuming little coming-of-age fable is actually, dare I say it, quite a bit of fun.

“Don’t go in the woods” is a common enough trope in popular culture — it’s even served as the title of at least two films that I’m aware of — but here Chenette cleverly and ingeniously transposes it into the internet age, where stories of things that go bump in the night have been amplified to an absurd degree rather than finally put to rest by the forces of rationality, putting the lie to the quaint hope that we all probably held in the early days of the so-called “information” superhighway. But I suppose I digress.

Or do I? Because the idea of superstition or irrationality manipulated to the benefit of some is also one of the themes Chenette tackles here, albeit in more personalized form than large-scale phenomena such as QAnon. Still, it’s part and parcel of everything to unpack in this 32-pager, and while the downright whimsical art style, naturalist dialogue, and freeform, near-intuitive page layouts employed in the telling of this tale might cause one to discount its thematic heft and weight, in reality we’ve got more than a bit of a velvet glove/iron fist dichotomy at work here — albeit one that lands its punches in, for lack of a better term immediately coming to mind, a decidedly pleasing fashion.

Fear not, though, dear reader, for while your humble critic here may sounds both confused and confusing, Chenette’s comic is anything but, and in most key respects stands out as the most traditional of Entropy Editions’ releases to date. Sure, at its core one could argue that it’s an inherently experimental work in that it densely packs a number of fairly serious subjects and themes into a crisp, even breezy, narrative structure, but I think such a reading could also result from yours truly having been at the review game for so long that I veer into the overly-analytical almost by default. It may, in fact, simply be that Chenette is really good at what she does and is therefore able to grapple with topics of extreme import without belaboring any particular points. You’ll know you’re being offered plenty to think about here, make no mistake, but you won’t feel like you’re being forced to think about any of it.

Call it sleight of hand if you must, skill if you’re feeling more generous, but either way this comic hits it out of the park in terms of doing exactly what it sets out to do — and its goals and aims are actually quite ambitious, both formally and conceptually. This is just about as self-assured as the art form of cartooning gets, if you’ll permit me to speak plainly (and hey, it’s my blog, so good luck stopping me), and in a world where the term “highest possible recommendation” gets thrown about far too freely, this is work absolutely worthy of such an accolade.
Are you still here? Forget about my blathering, go order this comic!

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The Beast is available for $7.00 from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/the-beast

Review wrist check – Formex “Reef” green dial/green bezel model riding its factory-issue stainless steel bracelet, which is a damn work of art in and of itself. Formex’s bracelets are some of the best in the business, outdoing the likes of Tag Heuer, Longines, and most of the bigger players in their price range with ease. In fact, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, this could very well be the single-best timepiece in my admittedly modest collection.

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “Prison” By Liva Kandevica

There are many different types of prisons — those constructed from without and those constructed from within, those that we can escape and those we can’t, those undoubtedly real and those at the very least possibly imagined. One of history’s more infamous convicts, Charles Manson, once said “prison’s in your mind — can’t you see I’m free?,” but the unnamed protagonist of Leipzig, Germany-based cartoonist Liva Kandevica’s Prison, catalogue number EE02 in publisher Justin Skarhus’ Entropy Editions range, apparently didn’t get Charlie’s memo : metaphorically imprisoned by dint of sheer isolation, they suffer, as they live, entirely alone, and largely in silence.

Err — except for the talking (and endlessly taunting) stones, that is.

For the heavily-routinized among us, this critic included, Kandevica’s 24-page mini will no doubt hit home, given that her prisoner is their own jailer, and the bars and walls of their metaphorical cell appear to be constructed entirely of their personal habits, but as most anyone who’s ever found it impossible to break free of their circumstances can tell you, there is a comfort in hewing to one’s norms that is downright insidious — we’ll keep on doing the same shit over and over again even, perhaps especially, when we know said shit is no good for us. “Old habits are hard to break,” “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” — these cliches didn’t just appear out of nowhere.

Here’s the thing, though — despite how things sound to this point, this comic isn’t all doom and gloom. There are mysteries lurking within it (what those annoying stones symbolize is entirely up to your own independent analysis), sure, but there’s also a deeply existential streak of absurdist humor that runs throughout (and just underneath) the narrative here, one that is as much felt as it is seen, and the “dual track” first-person narration Kandevica employs (see artwork examples) effectively approximates what amounts to a “split-screen” effect between words and pictures, meaning this is a comic where both elements work together in concert and separately. It’s weird, but it’s both effective and affecting — and that’s really not the worst summation of the book itself, either, now that I come to think of it.

What makes it work isn’t, thankfully, all that difficult to quantify — Kandevica’s unique blend of minimalist figure drawing, classically “catroony” environments, and judiciously-placed washes is damn pleasing to the eye, and about as apropos to her subject matter as one can think of or perhaps even hope for. Striking a delicate balance between visual elements is a flat-out necessity when you’re taking readers on a journey this singular, and while there’s no miraculous “jailbreak” to speak of on offer, this is at the very least an aesthetically pleasing prion to be trapped within.

For all that, though, you can’t help but have some sympathy for the poor sap at the center of this tale of self-induced woe. We’ve all been stuck in some ruts in our lives, and to one degree or another most of us have some going right now (got a job? Then I’m referring to you). Escape might not be easy, and in some cases might not even be preferable, but Kandevica reminds us that it’s an option, whether we can see it or not. She’s constructed a story about a solitary and isolated individual that somehow, go figure, speaks to the concerns, even fears, of just about everyone. Whatever she’s serving time for, I say let her off for good behavior.

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Prison is available for $7.00 from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/prison

Review wrist check – Seaborne Trading Co. “Sea Venture” in their “Sunset Bezel” variation riding Seaborne’s own “Bondi Blue” NATO strap. If there’s such a thing as a perfect watch for the 97-degree weather we “enjoyed” here in the Twin Cities today, then this is it.

Entropy Editions Round-Up : “Barrage” By Nicolas Nade

Entropy Editions is a new(-ish) publisher based here in the Twin Cities that appears to be casting a rather broad remit in terms of the sort of material they’re willing to roll the dice on — so far all their well-designed minis seem to fall vaguely under the rubric of what most would classify as “art comics,” specifically “art comics” with a formalist approach, but beyond that everything is up for grabs conceptually and thematically, and it’s not like these de facto categorizations preclude narrative from being involved in the proceedings to the extent a given cartoonist wishes for it to be. Sure, the format of the books themselves is rather uniform in terms of logo, cover design, and what have you — they’re even numbered! — but in strictly editorial terms these comics hew (a bit) closer to, say, a Mini Kus! than they do to a Ley Lines, which has an admittedly flexible, but still very much always-present-and-accounted-for, set of “guideposts” at its core. All of which means, I suppose, that we can look forward to never quite knowing what’s in store for us with one of these ‘zines, as the very name of the project implies.

I’d like to say we’re starting at the beginning with this overview of EE’s wares, but that wouldn’t be true : the line debuted in 2018 with Justin Skarhus’ Hand In Glove, but that sold out its limited run of 10 (yes, you read that correctly) copies quickly, and was unnumbered, so we’re going to start in 2020 with catalogue number EE01, French cartoonist Nicolas Nade’s abstract, wordless, and conceptually challenging Barrage, and in the days ahead review EE02, EE03, and EE04, as well. Sound good? Then let’s dive right in :

And honestly, there’s a lot to dive into with this 16-pager, an exploration of deliberately lifeless, austere, mechanized landscapes that can’t really be said to “go” anywhere — which is well and good since there’s no indication of where any of these sharply-delineated constructs “comes from,” either. Under normal circumstances logic would dictate that human hands built all of this — or built the machines that, in turn, built it? — at some point, but there’s a subtle and omnipresent timelessness to all of this that would indicate we’re looking at a quasi-permanent state of affairs in these drawings, a triumph of artifice that is unencumbered by either alpha or omega, the only concession to the organic being the brief appearance of something that could be slime, but could just as easily be engine grease.

Still, for all that, the round object we’re following does embark on a journey of sorts here, but the notion of it “progressing” is almost laughably quaint — it simply ends up somewhere other than where it started, and all indications are that it will continue on to somewhere else, in some form, after that. In a pinch it’s tempting to say that we’re observing a kind of mechanical reproductive cycle here, given some of the obvious visual parallels, but it’s also fair to say that a lot of it looks like a pinball-style game, too — which, come to think of it, Freud probably would’ve had field day with as well, so I dunno. I’ll leave all such speculation to more qualified minds than my own, I guess.

Still, I say without a moment’s hesitation that what matters more than anything when grappling with a project this obtuse by design in whether or not it gets you thinking, and on that score Nade clearly hits the mark. Steadfastly refusing to either celebrate or condemn the complete sublimation/subsumation of the biological in favor of an approach that, for lack of a better term, smacks of “straight reportage” may be frustrating — even alienating — to some readers, but chances are that even a quick glance at this comic would send that crowd scurrying more or less immediately anyway. This is art that is uncompromising on its face, and yet decidedly non-dictatorial in terms of both its methodology and messaging.
I’ll be blunt and state for the record that, while impressed with the delicacy and precision of this comic’s technical prowess, I’m still not sure how I “feel” about it — but I also think that a mixed or muted reaction is what Nade is seeking to engender in readers here. In a lifeless world, the only absolute is the absolute, and the human mind has forever been trying to come to grips with what exactly that is — as well as what it means.

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Barrage is available for $5.00 from the Entropy Editions online shop at https://entropyeditions.bigcartel.com/product/barrage

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very gratified indeed if you’d give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“Poems For Profit” : Josh Frankel Disperses The Verse

Sometimes, all it takes to appreciate the ludicrousness of something is to nudge that something in a different direction, to shift it ever so slightly so that what should, by rights, be blatantly obvious absolutely is. 45 degrees here or there can sometimes be all it takes to restore focus to something that somehow loses it when it’s front and center.

Case in point : the collector mentality, especially the comic book collector mentality. The kind of “thinking” that compels people to drop ridiculous sums of money for cheaply-made periodicals that are essentially disposable by design, and then to not even engage with them on the level people who paid a quarter (or less) for them did, which is to say — the collector doesn’t read that “holy grail” comic he (and yes, it’s almost always “he”) just dropped a huge chunk of his life savings and/or year’s salary on, he encases it in a thick mylar sleeve, seals it away under vault-like conditions, and derives any dubious “satisfaction” he may incur from owning the thing simply from, well, owning it. Can’t take it out of the bag, after all — that would expose it to the elements and reduce its value.

Laid out plainly like that, of course it’s an absurd way to “enjoy” one’s purported “hobby,” but to a comic book collector it all makes a kind of perfect sense — whereas the idea of actually reading their books seems flat-out nuts. Poking fun at this insanity is rather like shooting fish in a barrel, it’s true, but by doing that slight shift I mentioned at the outset here in his latest self-published mini, Poems For Profit (billed on the inside cover as the first issue of a new series called Incessant Comics), Josh Frankel — a cartoonist I’ve been focusing on quite a bit as of late, and for good reason — is able to not only point out the bevy of bizarre notions that underlie the collector mentality, he’s able to do so in a way the eschews the easy traps of mean-spiritedness and cruelty and instead have fun with the whole exercise. You know, like these collector guys are supposed to be doing with their comic books.

In fact, Frankel knows the mindset of the collector so well that my suspicion — which may even rise to the level of being an assumption — is that he likely was one himself at some point, and that our host for this ‘zine, one Meter Mike, is therefore an authorial stand-in of sorts. Certainly the “advice” he gives to prospective poetry “investors” may as well come straight out Wizard magazine circa 1992, albeit transposed into and onto a different medium : Mike, for instance, says to be on the lookout for the first appearances of key words rather than characters, to make sure the poems you buy are written/typed on paper with sharp corners, to “authenticate” any coffee stains a poet left on his or her work. It’s an eight-page mini, so I’m not going to give any more of the jokes away just out of fairness to Frankel (nor any of the art — instead find a self-portrait, of sorts, of the cartoonist, and the cover of another of his minis recently reviewed around these parts, Grim Nutrition, reproduced below), but I will say that they are all funny, and that the deliberately “cartoonish” art style used for this one is pitch-perfect for the subject matter.

As both a reader and critic I’ve found myself drawn to tightly-focused projects of late that demand a high degree of discipline from artists and don’t offer them any opportunity to meander or to over-indulge any dubious sensibilities they may have. In short, stuff that is short, and proves that they know how to get in, get out, and hopefully create something that’s at the very least amusing, and if they’re good maybe even downright memorable, in the process. This mini ticks all those boxes and stands as a prime example of what can be achieved in this format if one is committed to working within, rather than against, its admittedly tight strictures. Of course it’s a proverbial “one-trick pony” — but that’s precisely what it’s supposed to be.

It’s also, however, probably not the sort of thing you’re supposed to talk about for 600 or 700 words or whatever it is I’m at now, so I’ll bow out here and simply say get it, you’ll be glad you did, it’s smart and funny — and right on the money.

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Poems For Profit is available for $3.00 from Josh Frankel’s Storenvy site at https://jfnexus.storenvy.com/collections/68671-all-products/products/31502773-poems-for-profit

Review wrist check – Traska “Freediver” mint green dial/black ceramic bezel model riding its factory-issue stainless steel bracelet.

Come On Get Healthy : Frederick Noland’s “The Big Jab”

It’s no secret that one of the things I pride myself on doing around here is reviewing stuff that no one else ever has or probably will, but in the case of Bay Area cartoonist Frederick Noland’s new Birdcage Bottom Books-published mini, The Big Jab, I think I may be taking things a step further by critiquing something the comic’s very creator probably never even intended to be reviewed.

I mean, for all intents and purposes what we have here is basically the comics equivalent of a PSA, and to top it all off, this thing isn’t even offered for sale anywhere! It is, however, easy enough to get your hands on a copy, as well you should — but we’ll get to all that at the end of this little write-up. First let’s deal with why I said you “should,” in fact, get it —

Okay, yes, the basics that you want from a good mini are all on hand here — Noland’s little story is nicely and organically drawn in an entirely non-belabored fashion, his writing is sharp and incisive, and the story he relates is one that’s not just timely and topical but is also eminently, well, relatable on its face. In terms of execution, efficacy, and underlying intent, it’s a terrific little example in microcosm of form and function working in concert seamlessly. Here’s the added rub, though — this comic is also really important. So important, in fact, that not only should you get it (as I’ve already mentioned twice previously, so I’ll stop now), you should get extra copies of it (hey, broke my word not even one word later, that’s gotta be some kind of new world record!) and leave them scattered around town at bus shelters, park benches, you name it. You want to spread the word about the word Noland is spreading.

As to what that word is, I should think the title gives it away, but just in case it doesn’t, I’ll clobber the point home (it’s what I seem to be doing with this one anyway) : vaccinate. Seriously. Especially if you’re Black, as Noland makes crystal clear that Black people stand a much higher chance of not just contracting COVID-19, but of being hospitalized due to it, and of dying from it. Why the hell do you think the Trump administration was in no hurry to deal with this pandemic? And yes, as Noland also points out, Black people are getting “jabbed” in far lower numbers than any other ethnic group, and while he offers some pertinent and very personal observations in regards to this depressing fact, his main thrust here isn’t to create a through-going piece of cultural analysis, but to do his part to reverse things before it’s literally too late.

So, yeah — this comic might be short in terms of length, but it’s as important a thing to read as there is. The fact that it only takes a couple of minutes to do so is more than just a nice plus, though, it’s essential to its purpose. I don’t know about you, but my eyes would gloss over at some lengthy treatise on this topic with which we’re all so intimately familiar already. Noland, wisely, is determined — scratch that, very detemined — to get this message out in as succinct and accessible a manner as possible, and he does just that remarkably well. This, then, is a comic with more than a “purpose” — it’s got a mission, and if it convinces even one person to get the vaccine, I think that mission has been accomplished.
At the risk of sounding dramatic, this may actually be one of the most important comics of the year — or of any year. You’d be well-advised to read it as though you life depended on it, because who knows? It just might.

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The Big Jab is included free with all orders from https://birdcagebottombooks.com/ Please see if proprietor J.T. Yost will throw in an extra copy or two for you to “distribute” in your local area in the manner I suggested.

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Small Wonder : Rachelle Meyer’s “Holy Diver”

While the more carnally-minded among us may disagree with the old adage that the best things often come in small packages, Rachelle Meyer is here to prove that some cliches are actually and absolutely true by means of her newly-released mini, Holy Diver, a perfect little slice of memoir published under the auspices of her very own Therewise Enterprises label that well and truly lays to rest any notions of autobio having “played itself out” over the course of 21 (the story concludes on the inside back cover) Chick tract-formatted pages. And talking of things playing themselves out —

So-called “backward masking” is the theme of the day here, a largely bogus urban legend which contended that rock groups — in particular those that plied their wares in the heavy metal genre — were “concealing secret messages” in the vinyl grooves of their records that could only be heard when they were played backwards. Many an unaccredited youth pastor no doubt scratched the shit out of too many LPs to count in a mad search for these encoded prayers to Satan and found none, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t THINK they’d hit the mother lode as all kinds of garbled nonsense assaulted their eardrums, most notably when they were “listening” to acts like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath in reverse. There’s more, however, to this comic than just a little “Satanic Panic.”

Long story short — or maybe that should be short story even shorter — Meyer weaves a clever and even heartwarming tale from the raw ingredients of her idiosyncratic upbringing (hey, there aren’t that many Catholics in Texas), her hero-worship of her older brother, the title of a classic Ronnie James Dio album, and the aforementioned “backward masking” that would give many a long-form “graphic novel” a run for its money in terms of characterization and emotive “punch.” It’s one thing to effectively establish a sense of the social and cultural morays of a time and place without sacrificing the essential kernel of humanity at the heart of any given narrative, it’s another thing to do it succinctly — throw in the added challenge of presenting no-doubt complex family dynamics in microcosm and you’ll begin to appreciate how much Meyer is able to do with so little in this book.

Still, while her page count may be in short supply, Meyer’s visual storytelling “chops” are present and accounted for in rich abundance. Her delicate, confident linework, expert utilization of shading techniques (including, if I’m not very much mistaken, a judicious application of washes), efficient-but-heartfelt figure drawing, and economic sequential pacing all combine to create a remarkably fluid comic that feels unforced and relaxed despite being quite information-dense. Indeed, by the time Meyer wraps things up with a bow, you’ll feel like you know her younger self really well.

It’s also fair to say that while Meyer’s childhood seems to have been a largely healthy one, you’ll come away with an understanding of why she got the hell out of Texas, as well. How she ended up in her present home-away-from-home of Amsterdam is probably a plenty fascinating story in and of itself, I’d wager, but rather than idly speculate as to the whys and wherefores behind it, I’ll sit back and wait for her to tell us about it when she feels the time is right. I know I’ll be eagerly lined up to be one of said hypothetical future comic’s readers should such a day ever come.
Until then, though, we’ve got two further installments of what she’s billing as her “Nunsense Series” to look forward to — and looking forward to them I most assuredly am. This first of the bunch ranks as one of the absolute finest and most accomplished mins I’ve read in recent years.

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Holy Diver is available for $6.36 (it’s a Euro conversion thing, I wish it’s come out to $6.66 personally) from Rachelle Meyer’s Etsy shop at https://www.etsy.com/listing/889256230/mini-comic-holy-diver?utm_source=website&utm_medium=api&utm_campaign=api

Review wrist check – Formex “Essence” brown dial chronometer model riding Formex’s own (and, for the record, superb) stainless steel bracelet.

In “Scab County,” The Scars Run Deep

Confession time : I pride myself on being up on just about everything going on in the world of small press and self-published comics, but try as I might, there is still a fair amount of stuff that escapes my notice until well after its release date, and such is the case with Scab County, a harrowing, disturbing, and yes even funny one-shot written and drawn by legendary DIY cartoonist/musician/SOV filmmaker Carlos Gonzalez in 2015 and published by Floating World Comics the following year. Odds are fairly good, then, that a number of regular readers of this blog already have this book, but to give away the game right away here, let me say that for those of you who don’t, you’d be well-advised to do what I recently did and grab one up quickly because the sooner you get the contents of this comic into your subconscious mind, the better.

Not that it’s going be a “welcome” addition to the likely-convoluted (at least if you’re an interesting person) confines of your mind, but it’s going to make its presence felt both immediately and for the duration, because this is one of those things that you can’t really unsee afterwards, and while the story itself falls firmly in the realm of the fantastic, its core message — that any of us are only ever one bad, or even random, decision away from fucking up our lives irrevocably — is about as unforgiving, as well as unforgivingly true, as it gets. So, yeah, “feel-good” reading it’s not, but powerful reading it most surely is.

Succinctly summarized, what we have here is the tale of a father and son heading west in a covered wagon, with the junior member of the family at the reins, and when a fork in the road presents itself, the headstrong youth blows off the old man’s advice and heads for the Scab County of the book’s title, at which point Gonzalez dismisses with the cringe-inducing creepy humor of the first couple of pages in favor of a waking nightmare hellscape that would make the likes of David Lynch proud, and maybe even a bit envious. “And here,” as the saying goes, “my troubles began,” but for one of our duo their troubles will end there as well, because the “couple” (of sorts, at any rate) whose “acquaintance” they make have a lot more on their depraved minds than simple cattle rustling. To say too much more would be, indeed, to say too much more, but if you can’t handle genital mutilation, physical and psychological deformity, violent sadism, and the infliction of severe and permanent trauma, well — this one ain’t for you, kids.

If, however, you can — or if you take a kind of perverse delight in having your conscience (as well as your gag reflex) put to the test — you’re going to find an almost admirably bleak statement of existential nihilism waiting for you here that, if you’ll forgive the term, is downright delicious in terms of both its simplicity and inescapability. The basic foundations of all our lives are built on houses of cards, and while none of us like to admit as much, we’re all just one slight nudge in the wrong direction away from either death or a fate even worse than it. Gonzalez isn’t toying with his readers here, then, admittedly bizarre as the proceedings he delineates may be (okay, are) — he’s serving up the cold, hard truths that we’d like to pretend aren’t even there but that we know in our hearts and heads ain’t never going anywhere, pardner.

Interestingly enough, though, there’s no direct feel of a hammer-blow to your skull that happens as you’re reading, even if the conceptual weight of the comic hits you like one — indeed, Gonzalez’ highly individualistic cartooning style lends itself really well to the dreamlike and dimensionally-transitory character of his narrative. Sparse but solid linework of entirely uniform thickness, random “cut-up” collage insertions/intrusions, minimalist backgrounds, and deadpan facial expressions and body language are this artist’s stock in trade, and not only do they lend his works a distinct and inimitable auteur sensibility, I’m willing to go a step further and say that the manner in which he draws them is quite literally the only way to tell the kinds of stories that he tells. As compliments go, I can honestly think of none that rank any higher than that.

Prepare to be surprised and horrified by what you find herein, then, but don’t be surprised to find that you return to this book over and over again as the years go on — or if you find it returning to you, especially on those sleepless nights when you ponder the slender thread by which your security, your stability, your sanity, your very existence hangs. Loathe as I am to quote the fucking Eagles, you know as soon as you close this comic that, like the bereft of all hope county it takes place in, you can check out any time you like — but you can never leave.

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Scab County is available for $5.00 from the Floating World Comics website at https://floatingworldcomics.com/shop/comic-books/scab-county

Review wrist check – Yema “Navygraf Maxi Dial” riding its factory-issue stainless steel bracelet.

Two From Billy Mavreas : “drop”

Next up on our mini “tour” of recent published projects by Montreal’s unofficial ambassador of the avant garde, Billy Mavreas, we come to 2020’s drop, another nicely done chapbook-style ‘zine from Ottawa-based above/ground press that has a tight focus thematically, conceptually, and even visually, but nevertheless feels like an innately expansive experience rather than a limiting, or worse yet limited, one.

Droplets of water constructed from text, clippings, and various and sundry found materials are the de facto “protagonists” here, either by themselves, in small “groups,” or as part of veritable torrential downpours, and as with other Mavreas works, each page can be taken as a discrete “concrete poem” (albeit in liquid form, ha!) on its own, but in succession the effect they have is cumulative at the very least, exponentially multiplied if you’re really picking up what he’s laying down. A visual poem with each page representing a stanza that can also, if need be, stand on its own, then, might be the most practical way of both interpreting and subsequently parsing this one.

Since when, though, does practicality have much to do with how one absorbs — pun only slightly intended — poetry of any sort? One of the things I appreciate most about Mavreas’ art is his inherently practical approach to its creation and execution, sure, but the concepts and themes he explores lend themselves to the kind of wide open interpretations that often belie the admirably workaday methodology at their core. Nothing, then, is ever so simple as it seems — rather like how the ocean is made up of hundreds of trillions of droplets of water, but just isolating one of them is, of course, physically impossible.

Ditto for the amorphous, transitory, dare I say fluid nature of this particular ‘zine, where what we’re looking at is never in question, but what it all means when considered both individually and in its totality is. I don’t care to be beholden to any single interpretation of work that is multi-faceted on its face, it’s true, but the conceptually exciting thing about this project is that your understanding and analysis of it needn’t be singular in nature at any point along the way.

All of which is to say that, yes, it is what it is — but what that is could be many different things, and then many other different things as soon as you turn the page forward. Or back. The literal-minded among you may find this an inherently frustrating thing to try to pin down, but my advice would be to not even seek to pin it down to begin with. Let it be what it is on the one hand, what it means to you on the other, and then come to grips with the fact that both are one and the same, but neither are fixed. Thinking about a work like this sure can’t hurt, but feeling about it is infinitely more rewarding.
In a pinch, then, I don’t mind classifying this is a challenging piece, but even while invoking that term I’m absolutely aware that it doesn’t need to be. It may not, in fact, need to be anything at all — it just is. Unless I’ve utterly missed the point, that’s the most beautiful thing about it — and even if I have, I get the feeling that’s okay, too. I can go ahead and make up my own point and it works just as well as anything else.

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drop is available for $4.00 from the above/ground press website at http://abovegroundpress.blogspot.com/2020/09/new-from-aboveground-press-drop-by.html

Also this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative indeed if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse