Guest Review : Tom Shapira On “The Beef” #1

Editor’s Note : I first became aware of Tom Shapira a few years back when his book Curing The Postmodern Blues : Reading Grant Morrison And Chris Weston’s The Filth In The 21st Century was released by Sequart. I’ve followed hi “byline” around the internet since, so when he contacted me out of the blue inquiring about whether or not I’d be interested in running this thoughtful piece on The Beef #1, I jumped at the chance. Read on and I’m sure you’ll agree that he absolutely nailed what makes this comic so absolutely relevant, yet utterly unique and deliriously bizarre at the same time.

And while we’re at it, if any other critics want to “get in on the act” around here, so to speak, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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“Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb!”

I can’t stop thinking about The Beef #1.

It’s a weird experience, for me, to have my mind refusing to let go of a “single” published (by the time of this article’s writing) over three weeks ago. Part of it is about me being who I am, who I define myself as, a “comic book critic.” Which means I read a mind-numbing amount of comics; it also says something about the culture I operate in which make it so easy to consume comics. There are two shops very close to where I live; if something happens to the shops a quick bounce to the internet will allow me to order comics via Amazon or Book Depository or many other a fine (and not so fine) online vendor. If I’m too impatient to wait for the package to be sent, and for the post office to lose it and thus for a replacement package to be sent, I can go online and read comics directly on the computer – Comixology, web comics, various illegal sites offering torrents and PDFs.

So reading comics, or at least acquiring them, is easy. I am also of that rare breed of lunatic who reads the full previews catalogue on a monthly basis despite not working for a retailer. I read the entire thing, careful lest I miss an exciting new voice working for a boutique micro-publisher, or news on whether or not someone bought the rights to reprint some lost classic I always wanted (can someone please do something with all the Carlos Ezquerra war comics from the seventies?). The result of which is twofold: there’s a form of anxiety that you often hear about from TV critics in this “golden age of television” – there’s too much good stuff, too many shows you must watch and think about if you want to be in “the in.” Whenever the end-of-the-year- list time arrives I’m always slightly ashamed for all the stuff I’ve missed. I didn’t read the celebrated My Favorite Thing Is Monsters last year, and now that 2017 is over I might never read it – because 2018 is a whole new year with many new comics to be read and considered and talked about on the virtual water cooler that is twitter.   

The other effect of this avalanche of comics is that I don’t connect to works on the same level anymore. As I child I had no shop, no Comixology, Amazon did not ship to my country. Whenever I managed to put my hand on a comic, via special order or a relative travelling abroad, I would treasure it and re-read it dozens, even hundreds of times. This doesn’t happen anymore. It’s not to say that comics today are worse than they were when I was a child, but even If I finish a work today and proclaim it “great” it will take years for me to re-read it even once. The deluge of new stuff is too strong to stop and re-consider, re-read, re-think. To re-read is to miss out on a new read — time is limited and the outside world rudely demands that you go out and work and study and hang-out as if there aren’t 2000 pages of Akira gazing accusingly from the shelves.

So I do not, as a rule, return to new work over and over again. But rules do not apply to The Beef #1.

“Moloch! Moloch! Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!”

Speaking of “rules” : by all rules of “proper” serial writing the first issue of The Beef  is a terrible comic. I’ve lost count of the number of first issues, often coming from The Beef publisher Image, that I docked points for waiting until the end of the issue to introduce the concept that we knew (because we read the previews and interviews and we know everything three months in advance and I almost forgot what it’s like to just pick up comics at random) was the main subject of the book.

The plot here is about a man who eats too much fast food until he becomes a Hulk-like monster. And so the first issue “drags” over twenty pages before man becomes beef. Since we know the man will become a beef monster it is unforgivable to waste the reader’s time in such a manner. Or it would be unforgivable; for some reason I don’t take offense in this case. Give me five more issues of this sad everyman doing nothing in the face of horribleness, waiting for transformation. Decompress farther – make it a thirty- issue series of waiting for a transformation that will happen on the last panel of the last page of the last issue and I would not protest.

There’s also the subject of subtlety, or the lack thereof: this is about consumption. “Chuck has been eating burgers his entire life.” He’s also worked at the “meat factory” since boyhood, taking over from his father who had lost an arm for the job. So it’s a cycle – he spends all of his day killing (and the book does not shy away from the bloody nature of the work but rather leans into it*), and all his free time eating the fruits (meats) of his killing.

There are several mockingly-knowing commercials spread throughout the issue, including the very cover, as well as full page close-up shot of a bolt gun with the lettering USA drawn very boldly and clearly. Also, every single person in this all-America town is horrible, the familiar living type of inverted-nostalgia-trope in which the American dream is presented as a series of ugly perversions of the ideal: homophobia, sexism, racism, classism. Chuck is presented as a “good man” but we are meant to understand that this is not about doing good, at least until the end of the issue.  Even when Chuck is moved to action it is comes not so much from a desire to help but from a certain degree of sexual lust. To be good here all you need is to ‘not do’ – not being a terrible asshole is enough to be a good man in this vision of America.

This is a grim subject, made even grimmer by the artwork of Shaky Kane. The House To Astonish podcast, reviewing this very issue, rightly characterized his artwork as holding a specific tone, close to that of David Lynch: no matter what actually happens on the page there is always the sense that someone just might come behind you and drag you into the deep, dark woods (which will only be the beginning of your troubles). This book is all daylight — day-glo even — shots, and yet it’s scarier than any proper contemporary horror comic you can name. Everything just feels wrong, feels askew. The last time I felt so creeped out, intentionally at least, by a comic was Bulletproof Coffin — another Image series drawn by, you guessed it, Shaky Kane.

So this is an issue whose socio-political point is made with the bluntness of a hammer (or a bolt gun) to the face as well as featuring a plot drawn around an obvious conclusion. So how come, how can it be, that I’m over a thousand words into an article about it – and not quite sure where I’ll stop?

“Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! Breakthroughs! over the river! flips and crucifixions! gone down the flood! Highs! Epiphanies!”

Quoting poetry, putting any sort of epigraph to a damn review, is sure sign of pretentiousness. But the simple fact is that I need Alan Ginsburg’s words; he was allowed, as a poet, to transcend the simple structures of language that I feel bound to. The reason The Beef works is that it transcends the limitations, the “rules.”** The way a poem transcends language: “to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose and stand before you speechless.”

I am reminded of one my favorite comics of all time – the second issue of the second series of Shaolin Cowboy (you can find it in a trade collection under the name Shaolin Cowboy : Shemp Buffet). As that story begins, the titular protagonist jumps chainsaw- first into a herd of zombies and then proceeds to fight them.  What makes this comic unique is that rather than being another issue-long fight scene (Darrow did many of these), it’s an emanation of both the use of decompression in comics and the overuse of the zombie trend in our culture. Every single page in the issue is a double-spread based on the exact same structure : two horizontal panels  featuring (literally) mindless violence. The first few pages are cool (check out at all the amazing details), then it becomes boring and repetitive, then it becomes hilarious, and finally the repetition becomes sublime. Like the endlessly repeated “who” or “Moloch” in Howl.

It only really works in the original publication order, when you had to wait a month for the plot to progress only to receive a meta-gag; the collected edition rather neuters the punchline. But the reason it works is because it goes against the rules, because it forces you to pause and consider***. It’s a comic that is a “fun read,” but at the same time it’s a comics that challenges the reader.

The Beef #1 is as fun as a comic about grotesquerie, both physical and mental, can be. It is also a story about thoughtlessness, about the way society automates our being and how we surrender to this process of automation. And, oddly enough, by being that story it stopped my own process of automation. I put down the stack of new issues and graphic novels; stopped staring at news site announcing “new and exciting” stuff. The Beef pulled me out, at least momentarily, from my own little consumption bubble: buy, read, tweet, repeat.

There’s also the matter of Shaky Kane. One of the finest artists of any generation, Kane reminds me a lot of Darrow. Not in style, but in the feel each brings to their works — in “Darrow-world” it also feels like someone is always about to do horrible things to you (though you are likely to see it coming in high-definition). Whatever writer he works with Kane tends to dominate the text ****,  to charge it with further sublime meaning, his (intentionally) crude lines grappling with the perceived innocence of the past. Just look at his art move from the gaze of the cows to the eyes of Chuck; it’s not only great at the level of each single image, but also in the way the page “edits” – the purposeful movement and focus. Kane’s art looks like something that shouldn’t work, but it does.

Not to take away from the script by Richard Starkings and Tyler Shainline; I don’t know exactly how this series came to be, or how many re-writes it’s been through, but whoever contributed whatever is less important than the “whole” we ended up getting. I can’t imagine anyone else drawing it, or writing it. There’s a synergy here that feels less like a good team effort — and more like an act of alchemy.

I would say that this is “the best comic of the year,” but that would seem reductive because a) the year has just started b) it doesn’t really seem like a regular comic; or, at least, it didn’t made me feel like a regular comic does.  It’s a very personal thing — it almost feels like it’s a comic made specifically for me, and I wouldn’t want to confuse this with some general recommendation, since a lot of people won’t get a kick out of it, and a lot of people don’t want or need a head-dive into everything shitty about this world. But for all the shit, there’s magic in these pages; there’s poetry.

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*Growing up in Kibbutz, I had the option, as a boy, of working in one of the ‘live industries’ – cows, chicks, fishes. I spent about a day at each, guts and animal crap abounding, before choosing to toil in the fields as my contribution for the collective, terrible summer sun and prickly plants being nothing compared to the overflowing sense of death.

**“Do I contradict myself?
 Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

***I consider, for example, Andrei Tarkovsky telling off the people of the State Committee for Cinematography for daring to suggest Stalker should be better- paced and more dynamic for the sake of the viewers: “[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts.” I think Andrei Tarkovsky  would admire, or least understand, what Darrow is doing to the sense of time in comics.

*** Another thing Darrow does; consider his early works with Frank Miller, Hard Boiled specifically, and how much it feels closer to the things Darrow would write later himself than it does to Miller’s other works.

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If you want to keep up with all of Tom’s writing — and you should — follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/tomshaps

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Guest Review : Tom Shapira On “The Beef” #1

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