Fair warning at the outset : that question I pose in the headline for this review? I’m not sure I can answer it. But it’s not for lack of trying.
New York-based cartoonist Zach Hazard Vaupen’s Combed Clap Of Thunder (to my knowledge his first “solo” book, his previous material appearing in a handful of multi-creator anthologies) is a comic I’ve been poring and puzzling over since its release by means of the Retrofit/Big Plant Comics publishing partnership six or seven months back. It’s an engrossing work, to be sure, but not one that lends itself to clear-cut analysis. Which isn’t to say that the triptych of thematically-not-dissimilar stories are somehow oblique affairs — in point of fact, while they’re certainly (sorry to invoke the term, but) surreal in terms of execution and expression, they’re relatively straightforward narratives : “The Lonely Autocannibal The Scientist” is an internal monolgue on the —errrrrmmmm — virtues of human flesh consumption delivered by a guy who’s put a lot of thought into it and appears to be ready to take the plunge; “Bodhisattva” is the tale of two identical twins, one of whom is possibly imaginary, the other of whom harbors deeply suicidal impulses (and has, it would seem, since birth), but can’t get her “other half” to go along with the idea; “The Real Jesuses” is set against the backdrop of a literally Biblical rapture/apocalypse, as humankind is being sucked up through the sky to meet their maker, with our titular messiahs playing a key role when it comes to greasing the heavenly rails. All three tales have what are clearly intended to be “surprise” endings, but your mileage there may vary — what absolutely can’t be denied, though, is that the final plot “beats,” whether you consider them legit “twists” or not, are decidedly impactful and take some time, and perhaps several readings, to fully absorb.
So, yeah, this is some powerful cartooning that Vaupen is doing here, aided and abetted to no end by his dramatically understated visual aesthetic : smooth, clean linework is juxtaposed with subtle and rich facial expressions and body language, emotive, intricately-detailed backgrounds, sharp and fine cross-hatching, and deep, inky blacks to form an immersive and cohesive “look” that runs through every story while allowing for plenty of individual idiosyncrasies to give each a “variations on a theme” type of “vibe” — which is also the case, as you’ve no doubt already gleaned, with the narratives themselves. That takes a lot of smarts, to be sure, but also a hell of a lot of confidence is one’s craft — and Vaupen is self-assured for very good reason.
After all, not everyone can communicate ideas this disturbing, or at the very least unsettling, at their core with this level of efficacy —Eddie Campbell is somebody who certainly can (even if his natural impulses as a cartoonist tend to lean more toward the humorous), and it’s fair to say his influence is both seen and felt, but Vaupen skews that influence by at least 180 degress, at times turning it on its head altogether. The end result is something singular, something undoubtedly true, and something that leaves a scar on the psyche. Only a storyteller in absolute command of everything in his or her metaphorical “toolbox” can make you see the “sense” in cannibalism, or create a sense of empathy for a girl who tries to convince others (any others) to join her in a mutual end-of-life pact, or delineate a darkly comic rapture scenario where even angels fear to tread. The “kickers” at the end drive the point home, twist in the knife, put an exclamation point on the proceedings, but you’ve gotta be good and “hooked” well in advance for any of them to work — and if there’s one thing Vaupen demonstrates an uncanny ability to do, it’s to “hook” you early, no matter how bizarre-on-paper the premise.
But it’s perhaps the lingering questions and impressions the cartoonist leaves you with that are the most impressive thing about Combed Clap Of Thunder : are any of our protagonists engaged in actions that are inherently “right” — or are they only “right” to them? And if they are “right” to them, then how can the idea that they’re “wrong” be anything other than an entirely subjective judgment? And what makes the reader’s subjective viewpoint “superior” to that of the character’s? I’m still working all that out. I may be working it out for some time to come. Shit, truth be told, I may never it all figured out. But any work that can pose such deep and abiding quandaries with this level of natural and entirely unforced integrity is indeed an immensely brave one — and it’s no exaggeration to say that Vaupen has created a comic that, like it or not, you will always remember.
Combed Clap Of Thunder is available for the criminally reasonable price of dollars from the publisher at http://retrofit.storenvy.com/collections/29642-all-products/products/20070080-combed-clap-of-thunder-by-zach-hazard-vaupen