There’s Nothing Else Quite Like Watching Theo Ellsworth Perform “An Exorcism”

There must be something in the water out in Missoula, Montana.

David Lynch hails from there originally, after all — and so does Theo Ellsworth, one of the most intriguing, challenging, mind-bending, and frankly skilled cartoonists around these days. The detailed intricacy of his illustrations is testament to that fact, but it’s the underlying intent running through them — the deep and abiding sense that this is stuff he desperately needs to purge from his subconscious, through his hand, onto paper — that sets Ellsworth’s work apart from that of his contemporaries. There are visions that plague this guy’s mind, and I’m sure he’s grateful to have found an outlet for expressing them.

Shit, I know I’m grateful that he has, and I’m just a humble reader. But Ellsworth’s comics take me places. Dark, haunted, amorphous, undefinable places. Vistas of beauty and bewilderment, where “steady footing” stands definitively revealed as a lie, and malleability charges — or, more likely, shifts — to the forefront as the only, the eternal, the absolute truth. But his books might be well served by having a gentle admonition on their opening pages to the effect of : ” if you can’t let go, then go no further.”

His most recent full-length work,  An Exorcism (Kus! Comics, number three in their “Kus! Mono” series) is probably the purest and most lavish distillation yet of his utterly unique multi-dimensional view of existence, a — if you’ll forgive me invoking a cheesy song title — journey to the center of the mind that is by turns harrowing and humorous, unsettling and unhindered, vaguely familiar and decidedly alien. I’m not sure if anyone who’s never fucked around with psychedelics will have anything remotely like a frame of reference with which to approach this book, and it may not be healthy to even try. Fortunately for you all, I ingested a fair amount of acid in my youth and am, therefore, qualified (in my own mind, at any rate) to give analyzing it a shot.

“When I reach the blue surface, my exorcism treatment will begin,” our nameless protagonist informs us by way of a back-cover blurb (the comic itself is a wordless affair), before cluing us into the fact that he’s “not ready for this,” and that all he knows is that “this is going to be a harsh experience.” Which, have no fear, absolutely proves to be the case. But that’s only part of it.

Inanimate objects come to ghastly life, creatures of nightmare assuming physical (?) form, the makeshift walls between “fantasy” and “reality” melting away to nothingness, neuroses externalizing themselves and upping the ante in terms of the torments they cause — these are just the beginning. The portal. The gateway. There’s always another door — even if it’s not, strictly speaking, a door — and what’s on the other side is invariably more difficult, but necessary, to face than what came before. Ellsworth’s visual world is layered, hopelessly complex, painstakingly detailed, unfathomably dense, and his storytelling skills can best be summed up with the no-doubt-inadequate term “relentless.” Every page looks like it must have taken years to draw, and the fact that he can just gear up and do it all again — and again — and again? Goddamn, but I don’t even know where that ability comes from.

And do I even want to? I mean, please don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that somebody’s imagination is this untethered, this frenetic, this truly (dictionary definition here) fantastic — but I’m sorta relieved that it’s not mine. Ellsworth is one of those visionaries who makes art for the noblest and most therapeutic reason of all — because he has no other choice. You know this kind of art when you see it, and you know it from page first to page last here.

And yet the sheer intensity of this head-trip doesn’t preclude it from being an enjoyable one, either. You could be forgiven, in fact, for feeling a rush of excitement as you flip each page, anticipation for seeing what the artist comes up with next just runs that high. Anything’s possible. Rules — apart from his strict self-imposed guideline of three two-panel pages followed by a single-panel “splash” page — are out the window. If it can be thought of, odds are better than good that it’ll show up. If it can’t be thought of, hell — it’ll probably show up twice.

The terrors and wonders balance each other out pretty nicely here, but not so much in a matter of alternating rotation in that of a two-for-one. What is terrifying is also amazing, what is amazing is also terrifying. There’s no need for artificial distinctions to be drawn, nor does Ellsworth give you the option to engage in such rationalization for its own sake — and in a final and decidedly appropriate move, author and protagonist also reveal themselves to be one and the same, and you realize, of course, that you knew this all along. That it couldn’t be any other way. Which means that An Exorcism can also boast of one more distinction — it’s the out-and-out freakiest autobio comic that anyone has ever conceived of.

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If you’re ready to explore the deepest recesses of Theo Ellsworth’s singularly brilliant, and singularly scary, mind, An Exorcism is available for $14.95 (with free shipping to the US!) from our good friends at Kus! : https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/26881870/an-exorcism-theo-ellsworth

 

 

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A Parable For The Now : “Days Of Hate” #1

Fair enough, Ales Kot and Danijel Zezelj’s new Image Comics 12-parter, Days Of Hate, is set at some unspecified (though we know it’s post-2020) future date, but who the hell are we kidding? The story (or “chapter,” as the back cover would have it) title of this debut issues is “America First,” so that pretty much tells you all you need to know right there. In case you’re unsure as to the (entirely justified) target of these creators’ wrath, though,  some overly-expository dialogue over the course of the opening pages makes it clear, and after that any MAGA douchebag still reading has only themselves to blame if their blood pressure goes up a few points. This is obviously a dystopian, nationalist, fascist future with its roots very firmly in the present day. I like most of Kot’s other work (although his most intriguing project, Material, was abandoned at a frustratingly early juncture), most of Zezelj’s, and I hate Trump’s festering, fat, decrepit old racist guts, so what the hell — I was sold on giving this book a try from the outset. Now — does it give me good reason to stick around?

Comparisons to Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta are sure to flow freely in discussions of this comic, and rightly so, but the premise has certainly been tweaked to make it seem more plausible to contemporary audiences — yeah, the assholes were elected into office in Days just as they were in V, but this is taking place in the US rather than Britain, people seem to have an active “resistance” going already, and there hasn’t been a nuclear war (that we know of yet, at any rate). Kot also seems to be splitting his (and, by extension, our) attention between two protagonists, as well, one of whom is on the side of the angels, one the devils, who share a tragic past and now find themselves on opposite sides of the struggle to either overthrow, or preserve and expand the power of, the state for reasons reasons that are more personal than political — at least on the surface.

You could draw some quick stylistic parallels between Zezelj’s art and Lloyd’s in terms of its darkness, its grittiness, its “lived-in” look and feel, but to be honest I think the illustration in this book has a stylistic lineage that can be more directly traced back to Bernard Krigstein than anyone else with its angularity, its cinematic scope and movement, its inventive and off-kilter “camera” focus. Its stunning to look at — every bit as stunning as Zezelj’s work on the similarly-themed Starve, if not moreso — and suits the script to a proverbial “T,” but again, it does invite almost as much comparison to V as does the script.

But hey, what of it? If you’re gonna draw inspiration from something, it may as well be from the best. I don’t think we’re going to get anything like an equal-parts-intellectual-and-heartfelt anarchist polemic in this comic in issues to come — Kot seems at least as concerned with the “micro” realities of his characters’ daily lives as he is with the “macro” outlines of his world’s socio-political system and potential responses to same — but at some point we’ll hopefully get more than a vague and amorphous struggle for whatever passes for “freedom” from this conflict of philosophical should-be-absolutes.

Another trope I’d love to see Kot crib from Moore to one degree or another would be the inclusion of a critical examination of the motives and methodologies of his ostensible “heroes,” as well. If you’re taking on a well-nigh-insurmountable authoritarian apparatus, it only stands to reason that you’ll need to resort to some desperate measures, and not all of those measures are going to be entirely palatable to the average functioning human conscience. Kot’s fairly wide-open premise leaves the door open for this kind of de facto self-analysis, so there’s no reason not to go down this road, and it would, in fact, be a pretty massive cop-out to avoid it altogether. So I’m curious to see what develops in that regard.

And hey, I’m curious to see where his pair of antagonists goes, as well. They’re drawn in broad-stroke generalities typical of a first issue here, but there’s enough “meat” on their character “skeletons” to establish intrigue, perhaps even a sense of compassion. The victim of the duo being aligned with the bad guys, the aggressor with the good isn’t an entirely original narrative twist, I’ll grant you that, but it’s still a good one, and if the plot is structured in such a manner so as to maximize the impact of  forthcoming revelations and story “beats,” this could shape up to be a page-turning read, as well as one that makes you think. Here’s to hoping, right?

Jordie Bellaire’s colors are also very worthy of both a mention and a nod here, accentuating mood and “coating” various scenes with variations on single hues (most notably reds and browns) to give pages a uniformly, and suitably, post-modern (fuck, nearly post-apocalyptic) look and feel. Zezelj’s stylized, idiosyncratic line art literally demands an equally-unique color palette be applied to it in order to bring out, even multiply, its strengths, and Bellaire — as, let’s face it, she always does — certainly delivers on that score.

All told, then, I felt like I got my four bucks’ worth out of Days Of Hate #1 — it’s tremendously unsubtle, sure, but the threat posed by Trump, his fascist (sorry, “alt-right”) cohorts, and their congressional enablers isn’t exactly nuanced, or even debatable, at this point. Things are gonna get a hell of a lot worse if we don’t get serious about fighting back en masse, and far as cautionary fables as to where things will be headed if we don’t are concerned, it seems Kot and Zezelj may just be cooking up a doozy.

Who — Or What — Will You Find Inside “The Palace Of Champions”?

I’m trying, I really am, but Henriette Valium’s 2016 Conundrum Press-published, oversized (9 x 14, to be specific), hardback collection, The Palace Of Champions, confounds me at every turn. And yes, I do mean that as a compliment.

For one thing, it’s essentially impossible to discern where one strip “ends” in this book and another “begins,” but maybe that doesn’t really matter, because it’s not exactly easy to puzzle out what’s even happening in any given panel, let alone on an entire page. Valium’s illustrations are loaded with information — hell, worlds of it — and seem to operate outside the realms of time, space, and logic, to the point where they may even render such concepts outmoded at best, if not downright meaningless. Assaulting your eyeballs and sense of reason with equal gusto, Valium takes elements of old-school underground comix “ugly art,” occult and Kabbalistic diagrams, and the other-dimensional architectural schematics of the visionary Paul Laffoley, adds in several drops of richly garish color, tosses it all in a blender, sets it on “high,” and then pours what comes out five minutes later onto the page. Your first thought when looking at Valium’s art may in fact very well be that something like this probably shouldn’t even exist.

Your second thought, though, will  be to thank whatever higher power you do or don’t believe in that it does. In fact, you may even wonder where stuff like this has been hiding all your life.

The simple answer to that is “around.” Valium (or, as his birth certificate would have it, Patrick Henley) has been at this for nearly three decades, although not with anything like what could be termed “frequency.” I remember some of his stuff appearing in Fantagraphics’ Zero Zero anthology back in the ’90s, but it’s been in short supply since for fans outside his native Quebec to feast their eyes on — so while his status in Canada borders on the legendary, he’s far less of a “known quantity” elsewhere.

Some of that, of course, is down to the near-impenetrability of his work — not only is his art dense, multi-layered, and the dictionary definition of “intentionally chaotic,” but his scripts are riddled with deliberate misspellings, his letters are frequently written backwards, and big chunks (hell, sometimes entire lines) of text are obscured by intruding images. If you’re going to “get into” Valium’s comics, then be prepared to do some work.

At the same time, you need to let go of pretty much every single preconception you have in terms of form and function, of narrative “sense,” of visual congruity. Underneath all of this glorious mayhem there are things and situations most people can relate to — neighborly confrontations, creative ennui, personal neuroses, and housing problems are common themes that his “protagonists” are forced to contend with — but the way in which they’re approached is, well, quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Literally.

And maybe — mind you, I say maybe — Valium’s artistic raison d’etre is hidden somewhere in this frankly violent dichotomy. Perhaps his creative “project” has been, and remains, all about getting us to look at the prosaic and the humdrum in new ways by making it all as utterly alien as possible. I can see that as an entirely valid reading of of this or any other Valium comic. But is is the correct one?

Here’s where I confess that I just don’t even fucking know. Undercurrents of physical, mental, and emotional decay run through many of these “stories,” as well, and maybe Valium’s simply trying to invoke that sense of deterioration in his art. Maybe his emphasis on subjects like illness, urban overcrowding, and whatever he means by “science” all somehow dovetails together into something that makes a kind of “sense” in his mind. And who knows? Maybe he just knows how to get ahold of some really great drugs. I have no answers — only questions. Lots of questions.

All of which, in a twist that should make its creator proud, makes The Palace Of Champions both the easiest and most difficult book I’ve ever had to review. I couldn’t expound on this thing for, say, 1,000 words if I tried (even though it no doubt deserves it), but at the same time the few words I that I can come up with in order to attempt to “explain” it all seem like they need to matter. Like I have to try to convey some reason for why I think this is an important book. So how about this for an attempt at summarizing a work that  absolutely defies summary — if you were to never buy another book in your life, this one could keep you busy analyzing, re-analyzing, re-re-analyzing, etc. it for the remainder of your days. Even if you live to be, I dunno, 200 or something.

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Ready to take the plunge? The Palace Of Champions is available from its publisher, Conundrum Press, at http://www.conundrumpress.com/new-titles/the-palace-of-champions/

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 01/07/2018 – 01/13/2018, Special “Mini Kus!” Edition

It’s just as well, I think, that pretty much nothing of any interest hit comic store shelves this week, because the other day I received a package from Latvian publisher Kus! (pronounced “Kush,” if you’re wondering) containing their latest “four-pack” of minis, and every single one of these deserves some attention. We’re gonna give them just that, but first, the particulars —

For those either not, or only vaguely, in the know, Kus! has been at it for just over ten years now, producing unique, top-quality, idiosyncratic comics from the best talent, both established and emerging, from around the globe, and their Mini Kus! line is no exception. Forget what you know, in fact, about the production values for standard mini-comics, as these are each 24 pages in length, printed in full and lavish color on superb paper between heavy-duty, cardstock covers. Production values simply don’t come any better than this, and to date Kus! has done an exceptional job of commissioning work from cartoonists whose work absolutely shines in this format. Numbers 59, 60, 61, and 62 in the series were just released at the tail end of last year and they’re all something quite beyond terrific. And now, as promised, I’m going to tell you why —

Share The Love (Mini Kus! #59), illustrated by Paula Bulling with a script by Nina Hoffmann and pictured atop this column, tells the story (or maybe that should be stories, plural) of Philip and Simone, two potential lovers living in Berlin. They engage in highly personal conversation, both with each other and random “third wheels,” as they attempt to negotiate their way through what sounds to be a minefield of possibilities on their way to being together — and change shapes, genders, ages, even species as they change locales. Whether they’re men, women, or “funny animals,” though, certain constants remain — Simone is clearly enamored with Philip (or perhaps simply enamored with the idea of being enamored with him?), while ol’ Phil, for his part, is a bit of a self-obsessed douchebag. You honestly wonder what she sees in him, whether he’s covered in skin or fur. The scene and form transitions give Bulling a chance to experiment with a number of fluid and expressive art styles, each quite apropos, and even emotive, in its own right (the creative partnership here is so simpatico, truth be told, that you’ll think the comic was written and drawn by the same person), but for my money things really take a turn for the fascinating in the book’s last scene, when our protagonists assume the forms of mother and child, and “who” is “who” in the scenario becomes much less clear — in fact, it can be interpreted either way, and doing so makes for  entirely different reading experiences. I won’t kid you, I found myself absolutely enthralled by this story and it haunted my mind for several hours after reading it. Matter of fact, I read it four times the day I got it, and I expect I’ll be going back to it yet again in fairly short order. It’s a confounding comic, to say the least, but utterly captivating, as well. Do you have to let it linger? Oh, yes, you do.

His Last Comic (Mini Kus! #60) by Noah Van Sciver is a more traditional “alt comics” narrative, and a damn fine and fun one, at that. A poor schmuck who’s been self-publishing a bottom-rung superhero comic for 20 years decides this is it — he’s either gonna hit it big with his new issue, or hang it up for good. Fortunately (or is it?) for him, he stumbles into a shop run by an old witch and, through a bizarre set of circumstances worthy of a  1960s Marvel “origin story,” ends up accidentally turning his comic into pure magic. But not due to anything he’s written on drawn. The less said the better at this point since I don’t want to give the game away at all, but “be careful what you wish for” is definitely the overarching theme here. And keep an eye out for stray dogs. As always, Van Sciver’s art is all kinds of terrific to look at and he really outdoes himself with his color palette here. Uh-oh, it’s magic.

Jonah 2017 (Mini Kus! #61) by Tomasz Niewiadomski follows the surreal trials and travails of an erstwhile “man of action” who journeys from the ocean depths to the far-flung reaches of outer space — but may just perhaps be traversing the more unfathomable reaches of his own mind. Loosely based on/extrapolated from the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale (hence the title), Niewiadomski’s art is a joyous and wholly original thing to behold, rich and vibrant and culled from a place of truly imaginative (dare I say it) genius. Aquatic psychedelia with a “cartoony” twist and a meticulous eye for expressive detail. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Doesn’t matter, I love it either way.

Daughter (Mini Kus! #62) by Aidan Koch purports to be a recounting of genetic-memory visions channeled either to or through (maybe both?) a young girl living on a colony world in the distant future at the tail end of centuries of, as the back cover blurb would have it, “co-existent evolution between humans and other species.” A heady and ambitious premise, to be sure, and one perhaps better suited to a “show, don’t tell” storytelling methodology — so it’s a damn good thing that Koch’s taken the route of guiding us through this literally alien land/mindscape by engaging our eyes and hearts and letting our brains follow. Delicately minimalist watercolor illustrations do the “talking” here, each worth pondering over for hours if you have the time, and the overall sensation one gets is of being overwhelmed with a deep sense of both beauty and isolation. This is a comic you feel, rather than think, your way into, around in, and through — a sensory experience that reveals more of itself every time you read, or perhaps more specifically look at, it. I don’t know what’s waiting for us beyond the realm of our understanding, but I do know that Aidan Koch is channeling forces that soothe and frighten in equal measure, and has produced a work that defies description as surely as it does comparison. 10,000 miles into the atmosphere — my body shakes, is there a welcome here?

So, yeah — Mini Kus! is where some of the most imaginative, expectations-obliterating cartooning is happening these days, and this latest foursome represents, quite possibly, the line’s most considered and accomplished series of works yet. The old “highest possible recommendation” label doesn’t even begin to do justice to these books. I’d say “prepare to be amazed,” but I’m honestly not sure whether or not anything can prepare you for these wholly remarkable creative offerings.

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Mini Kus! #s 59, 60, 61 and 62 are available directly from the publisher as a set for the flat-out amazing price of $19.00 — and shipping to the US is free! Drop whatever it is you’re doing right now and order them at https://kushkomikss.ecrater.com/p/28807783/mini-ku-59-60-61-62

Should You Invite This Bunch Of “Ruffians” Into Your Home?

Brian Canini is one of those cartoonists who isn’t afraid to dabble his hand (and pencil, and ink pot, and — you get the idea) into any number of different genres to see what he comes up with — in fact, at this very moment he’s got a sci-fi mini (Plastic People), a diary comics series (Glimpses Of Life), and an indescribably weird-but-fun gag strip thing (Blirps), going on. That’s about as wide a variety as one can imagine, and while nay-sayers may charge that this means he has yet to find a “consistent voice” or somesuch, “glass-half-full”-types such as myself (no, really!) look at this as proof positive that he’s unafraid to experiment, to cast a wide net as he continues to hone is skills. To date, though, his longest sustained serialized story has been the recently-concluded Ruffians, a comic that actually mashes up a few different tried-and-true narrative tropes into one somewhat mixed, but always interesting, whole.

Part “funny animal” yarn, part hard-boiled crime thriller, and part life-behind-bars drama, Ruffians tells the story of Scar, a vicious, hard-ass, jaded assassin — who just so happens to be a three-foot-tall (or thereabouts) blue bear. He’s an interesting choice of protagonist, to say the least, and in all honestly it does take a few issues to just “get over it” and go with the flow, but the contradictions inherent in this character are definitely as stark as Canini probably intends them to be, and the mix of “regular” people, other intelligent animals (like a killer gorilla named Malt), and even a frigging ghost (Scar’s deceased best friend, Black Jack) makes for a supporting cast as consistently intriguing, and hard to predict, as the protagonist is himself. If you’re willing to suspend your sense of disbelief just a little more than usual, you’ll find a lot to love — or love to hate — in this bunch, never fear.

 

You’ve gotta be cool with some wildly varying art styles and publication formats, as well. All 13 issues are standard comic size, but some have full-color glossy covers, others glossy B&W covers, and others still flat newsprint covers. Issues bob and weave in terms of page count and cover prices, as well, and I assume that all these inconsistencies in terms of production values owe entirely to vagaries in the economics of the marketplace at the time (the series ran for over a decade, after all), while the fluctuations in how Canini illustrates particular characters and situations (Scar generally appears far more “cartoony” than the people and/or animals he interacts with, for instance, many of whom are rendered with almost painstaking detail) are a matter of creative choice — and most of those choices are successful.

Note that I say “most,” not “all.” Canini moves Scar into the “real” world in issue six, for example, and has him meet his creator, and while it’s noble enough in and of itself for cartoonists to experiment with photo/illustration montage, it really does bring the story to a screeching halt at more or less exactly the halfway point, and sort of reeks of an artist looking to make himself the “star” of his own book for no reason other than, well, he can.

That (admittedly semi-significant) gripe aside, though, for a long-form series Ruffians manages to maintain the overall pace of its narrative quite nicely. The first few issues are breakneck affairs that plunge us into Scar’s world at the deep end, things necessarily slow down as he attempts to get as accustomed as one can to prison life in issues four and five (although he picks a fight right off the bat in order to attempt to establish his place in the joynt’s “pecking order”), and after the just-mentioned issue six “hiccup,” things kick into a high gear that doesn’t let up until the conclusion in number 13. Along the way, Canini show that his particular “onion” has plenty of layers to it, and he peels them away at just the right points for maximum “hey, holy shit!” factor. The story is reasonably complex without being overly-complicated, and at no point does it become either intentionally or unintentionally confusing, so “props” to him for keeping the focus pretty damn tight for the most part — not the easiest thing to do over a span of, literally, years.

If bloody brawling is your thing, rest easy, there’s a more than generous amount of it on offer in these pages, and Scar’s sheer ruthlessness never fails to be shocking — although he’s got plenty of competition for the “most brutal bastard in the comic” crown both within, and outside, prison walls. The threats to the safety and security of our ostensible “hero” are very real, very pressing, and very nasty — as nasty as they need to be in order to make every fight feel like a fair one. A lot of conflict-centered narratives suffer from uneven match-ups between antagonists  when it comes to either brains, brawn, or both, but no such problem exists here. “The shit” gets real quickly, and stays that way from word “go” to word “stop.”

Now, as you may (or may not) have noticed, I’m trying my level best to avoid divulging anything too much like explicit “spoilers” here, but I’d be remiss in my duties as a critic not to mention that the series’ decidedly Sopranos-esque ending could very well leave a number of readers feeling cheated for having made it all the way to the finish line only to find questions lingering, but strangely enough, I don’t think that necessarily means there’s no “payoff” to be found here. You just have to maybe strain a bit to find it, but these types of conclusions — where everything isn’t spelled out too terribly specifically and readers are put in the position of  needing to do some of the “work” themselves — are, for my money, often the best, or at least the most appropriate, and make for a satisfying, if admittedly ambiguous, note to leave things on. If you’re the type of person that gets pissed off when story elements are left blowing in the breeze, when things can’t necessarily even be packaged up, much less wrapped with a bow, then fair enough — but if you don’t mind having some things to ponder even after all is said and done, I think you’ll like what Canini does with the last pages of his last issue here.

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In the final analysis, then, Ruffians may not quite achieve anything like “masterpiece” status, but it is ambitious, intriguing, smart, and features impressive art, crisp dialogue, solid characterization, and (for the most part) expert story construction. It hasn’t been collected into a single volume — at least not yet — but getting it in singles issues is a wise investment of your time and money, and all of them are still available from Canini’s own Drunken Cat Comics imprint at http://drunkencatcomics.storenvy.com/

 

Tyler Landry’s “Shit And Piss” Is Exactly What You Think It Is — And A Whole Lot More

I’ve been up there, so I know : Prince Edward Island is a serene, pastoral place, largely dependent on agriculture and Anne Of Green Gables-based tourism for its economic survival. The pace of life is slow and seasonally-dictated; communities are so tightly-knit, and the families therein go back so long, that you often hear remarkably different accents from one town to the next; cars travel at slow speeds along two-lane roads; crime is nearly non-existent. It’s like Vermont on steroids — yeah, sure, they’ve got high-speed internet now, but apart from that, life hasn’t changed a whole lot in the last, oh, hundred years or so.

Of course this is the sort of place that would produce a cartoonist with the most bleak, nihilistic, and uncompromising vision of the future committed to paper in recent memory. That’s just the way things work, isn’t it? That’s some kind of inescapable natural law. Now, hold that thought — it’ll come in handy later.

Tyler Landry doesn’t fuck around — he plunges you right into the shit, literally. Civilization is over, or will be soon, choked to death under a veritable mountain of its own waste, and the nameless protagonist of  Shit And Piss — his most recent graphic novel, a stark, 104-page B&W affair expunged from his consciousness and out into the world by means of the Retrofit/Big Planet Comics co-publishing venture —is in a prime position to watch it all, being that he’s some sort of caretaker at a sewage treatment plant at (sorry, but) the ass-end of human history. The place has more personality than the man — it’s dungeon-like in appearance, its walls seeping with exactly what you’d expect them to be,  its”landscape” besmirched by disgusting heaps of putrefying feces everywhere. Seriously, this environment stinks to look at — while our “hero,” for his part, is by and large portrayed as a near-featureless skull who oversees everything with a dispassionate eye that goes well beyond being merely “jaded.” He’s intelligent, to be sure — perhaps fiercely so — but he damn sure doesn’t care about anything or anyone.

The horror of this world (God, is “horror” even a strong enough word?) is communicated primarily by means of the nine-panel grid, and Landry expertly uses it to zoom in, around, onto any number of images we really don’t care to see — sometimes the panels flow together and serve as a composite background for some other equally-disturbing foreground illustration, more often than not they reveal differing angles of a scene oozing, festering into being. Some stories will be told — whether we like it or not.

And yeah, that sort of  dark-side-of-the-organic aesthetic is reflected in the plot, as well, which is surprisingly easy to follow for a comic that’s weighted so heavily toward the visual. Simply put, life will find a way. Lie will always find a way. Much like the grotesqueries that managed to emerge within, and subsequently devolve to meet the requirements of, a near-impossible, even wrong, environment in Neil Marshall’s The Descent, Landry’s uber-sewer becomes a giant petri dish for the development of a new, “throwback” form of life — specifically, a shit-golem with no urges apart from doing whatever is necessary for its heretical existence to continue. Problem is, there is already human (-ish) refuse living amongst the — well, human refuse — and measures must be taken to increase any new life form’s numbers in order to meet the “threat” posed by the old. More of their kind will be needed so that the future can wipe the past that created it out of the way.

Things get really vicious really fast in this book and don’t much let up, so you’ve been warned — but it’s not just the visual brutality I’m talking about here. It’s the conceptual brutality, the thematic brutality. Landry strips away all pretense and lays bare an ugly truth — who are we kidding, the ugly truth — that we all turn away from in fear and shame : that this is a predatory existence, and when our back is against the wall, we have no choice but to not only accept, but embrace that fact. The strong will survive, and those who have been too strong for too long will inevitably sow the seeds of their own destruction somewhere deep within the by-product of their own excess. It’s a done deal. It’s inescapable. It’s written in — well, maybe not stone, in this case, but you get the point.

So, is there any hope? Come on — there never was. Nature is a cycle, and that cycle can’t/won’t be denied. We can bury it, we can brutalize it, we can crap all over it — and it will still be there, waiting to remind us who’s in charge. You can say “we are dust” all you want, and yeah it’s true, but Landry has a more honest and discomforting way of putting things — we ain’t shit.

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Shit And Piss is not a book you’ll “enjoy,” but it’s certainly one you’ll never forget and will find yourself (despite your best efforts to resist) opening up again and again. You it directly from the publisher for $10.00 at http://retrofit.storenvy.com/products/19330015-shit-and-piss-by-tyler-landry

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/31/2017 – 01/06/2018

Happy New Year everyone, hope your 2018 got off to a rousing start, certainly the comic-book world seems primed to have a good year if the way things have started off is any indication —

It’s no secret to anyone following my writing, here or elsewhere, that DC’s line of licensed Hanna-Barbera comics has been something I’ve been singing the praises of pretty much since they made their debut nearly two years back, and trust me when I say that no one’s more surprised about that than I am given that most of these cartoons hold precisely zero nostalgic value for me and the overwhelming majority of DC’s publishing output is creatively worthless. Still, the free reign they’ve been giving to some of their best freelancers to “re-imagine” these moribund properties has paid off big time, and to date the absolute cream of the crop has been Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintstones, a 12-issue examination of decidedly modern social, economic, and political challenges filtered through a disarmingly charming pre-historic lens that offered some of the most smart, hilarious, and heartwarming stuff we’ve seen in any “Big Two” comic in, quite literally, years. In my “Top 10” ongoing series column of last year (okay, that still only means last month) I said that more than a simple Bedrock redux the book was actually a spiritual heir to Howie Post’s sublime Anthro, and I stand by that claim 100%. I was genuinely sad to see it come to an end. And yet —

Russell quickly transitioned over to another Hanna-Barbera book, and if anything, Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1 is an even stronger debut than The Flintstones #1 was. The set-up here is as obvious as it is genius : Snagglepuss is essentially Tennessee Williams, a celebrated gay playwright in the repressive early 1950s, and draping his exploits against the backdrop of HUAC and the “Red Scare” both grounds events in historical reality (even if a few liberties are taken) and offers the chance for cameos from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman to actually work within the context of the story rather than being mere attention-grabbers. The scene at the start of a couple out for a big night on the town ends up having a decidedly “gallows humor” punch-line to it at the end when it turns out that they’re dressed to the nines to witness the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, so yeah, as always, Russell is pulling no punches here and wearing his politics right on his sleeve — and I say good for him, and fuck the small handful of square right-wing “critics” who have been trashing this book online. This is a comic with a heart as big as its brain and if you don’t like stories that present an actual point of view, shoot — there are roughly a hundred other DC books for you to choose from this month that are cowed, derivative, completely vapid slug-fests. Go read any of them. Hell, go read all of them. Let those of us who actually value relevance enjoy this rare foray into it from a major publisher. And hey, icing on the cake — the book looks great, too. Penciller Mike Feehan draws with a clean line that’s a nice blend of “cartoony” and realistic, inker Mark Morales does a faithful job on embellishments, and superstar colorist Paul Mounts utilizes a lavish, multi-toned palette that makes every panel look like a million bucks. Not only is it a fairly safe bet that DC won’t put out a better book this year, it’s a fairly safe bet that very few comics, period, will be this good. I’m bummed it’s only scheduled for a six-issue run, but heck — I’m ecstatic that it even exists at all. Proof positive that great things can still emerge from highly unlikely sources, and the best four bucks you’ll spend this week, if not this month. Shit, maybe even this year.

And yeah, it just occurred to me that I may end up eating those words, but you know what? I kind of doubt it. I know I’m probably losing a ton of credibility in the eyes of a lot of people I respect by saying this, but I have to call ’em like I see ’em, and Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles is straight-up brilliant. And that’s a term I never use lightly.

Keeping our “Big Two” theme going, we also got the second issue of Ed Piskor’s X-Men : Grand Design this past Wednesday, and for my money (specifically, for my $5.99) it’s every bit as good as the first, maybe even moreso, as we dive pretty deeply into the some of the weirdest areas of X-history (Lucifer and all that) this time out. The story here is way more involving than a historical re-hash should be, the art’s terrific, the colors are eye-popping, the book’s production values are first-rate, and it’s more than fair to say this big experiment from Marvel has absolutely paid off. Piskor will be back this summer for his second go-’round (likewise comprised of two over-sized — and no doubt jam-packed — issues), and you’d better believe I’m counting down the days already.

Alright, let’s get to the small press since that’s still, in theory, what this site’s all (okay, mostly) about : I got a copy of Simon Hanselmann’s 16-page newsprint broadsheet Performance this past week, and this thing is absolutely gorgeous. Clocking in at a whopping 15″x 22.75″, this selection of exquisite full-color gallery paintings of Megg, Mogg, Owl, Werewolf Jones, Booger and the gang showcases Hanselmann at his best, and couldn’t come at a better time considering that I number myself among those who think that his shtick has gotten more than a bit stale as the years have gone on. Maybe the fact that this is an “all-art” publication that features none of his repetitious, dead-end “stories” is just what I needed to remind me of why I initially loved his stuff so much seven or eight (or whatever) years ago? I dunno, but whatever the case may be, this is as pleased as I’ve been with a Hanselmann project at any point since Megahex first came out. Yeah, I still think it’s well past time that he tried his hand at something new, but unless and until that day comes, this is $8.00 very well spent. Get it from the publisher, Floating World Comics, at http://floatingworldcomics.com/shop/comic-books/performance-by-simon-hanselmann

I got on the Eric Kostiuk Williams train late, first encountering his work in his late-2016 Retrofit/Big Planet release Babybel Wax Bodysuit, and I’m getting to his newest offering — the Koyama Press-published Condo Heartbreak Disco — late as well, given that I guess it actually came out a few months ago. Well, sorry, but I didn’t buy a copy until the other day — but fortunately, it was worth the wait, even if I didn’t know I was waiting for it. At 48 pages of story and art it’s probably not fair to call this a “graphic novel” per se, but it’s nevertheless a dense (visually and narratively) story, centered around “purveyors of socially-motivated revenge and personal guidance” Komio and The Willendorf’s Braid as they attempt to save Toronto from an onslaught of high-end “luxury” housing that is, quite literally, decimating once-vibrant neighborhoods and communities. A decidedly camp-infused and “snarky” anti-gentrification fable/superhero parody mix, this book is illustrated in Williams’ highly fluid (hell, borderline anarchic), richly-detailed style, and his page layouts are as incredibly inventive and free-flowing as his plot — or, for that matter, his protagonists’ identities. Things happen at full-throttle speed here, but the eye is guided through the pages in such a graceful, naturalistic manner that you won’t even know that you’re not being given time to catch your breath, and for a book centered around buildings and structures, it sure feels — and looks — incredibly organic. Yeah, I lament the fact that Williams is working is black and white here since he’s one of the strongest cartoonists out there when it comes to his use of color, but that’s a small gripe in the scheme of things when art and story both are this unique and confidently-realized. Cover price is ten bucks, but I wouldn’t feel bad about paying twice that, truth be told, and it’s not too hard to find it from unnamed major online retailers for even less.

Okay, that’s the first week of 2018 down! See you all in seven short days as we go over whatever week two has — or, by then, had — in store!