It’s hot down south.
Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, they tell me. Hot enough to melt the ice pack wrapped around little Jimmy Bob’s broken shoulder. Hot enough to send those armadillos scurrying across the blacktop really fast. Hot enough to make you do something crazy.
Veteran cartoonist Jeff Zenick, who’s made a habit of turning up in interesting places doing very interesting things when you least expect it, is probably the perfect person to capture the essence of what makes those run afoul of the law in Dixie do what they do simply because his astute observational skills not only capture every detail of a person’s face, but also what informs every line, every wrinkle, every cut, every bruise on it — in short, he draws real people that have been through some real shit. There is a tinge, I suppose, of the exotic and forbidden that is automatically attached to those with the sheer “fuck you” temerity to step outside society’s often-arbitrary moral and legal code, those who take it upon themselves to do what they can — and, in many cases, must to survive — simply because the means, motive, and opportunity are there, and yet in Zenick’s new comic/’zine, Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South : Drawings From Online Mugshots, what’s most striking about the collection of scofflaws contained within is how positively normal most of them look. Why, they could be your neighbors. Your friends. Your family.
Which isn’t to say that most of them don’t appear to have had a damn rough night, of course — but you get hauled in by a backwater sheriff’s deputy after you’ve been out on a bender and see how good you look. Zenick sets the tone on page one with a rather bleakly poetic introduction that cuts to the core of this latest project, but from then on it’s strictly six illustrations of chumps down on their luck per page, all of whom ended up in the pokey in places like Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. We keep hearing about this “New South” all the time, but if it exists (and remember, the entire south voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, so that’s a mighty big “if”), the progress it supposedly has brought with it has passed plenty of folks by — and they’re well represented in this collection.
To be sure, we’ve got people locked up on serious charges like domestic assault, stalking, illegal possession of firearms, and other major felonies in here. One guy is in for murder. DUIs are common. But a lot of the “criminals” herein got stuck with bullshit raps : vagrancy, illegally tinted car windows, failure to illuminate license plates. One poor schmuck is simply charged with being a “persistent felony offender,” with no specifics offered. One was arrested for “impersonating a police officer,” which in any just world would earn them a medal for ingenuity. Yet everyone from the accused killer to the harmless hobo seems to have one thing in common : desperation.
It’s a quiet, understated, or even disguised desperation, to be sure, but it’s positively ubiquitous, palpable. It’s hiding behind the nonchalant “nothing I haven’t been through before” tough-guy stare. It’s expressed as bewilderment and confusion on those whose expressions say “how did I end up here when the day started like any other?” It’s buried under veritable layers of chemically-induced haze among those too drunk, high, or both to even know where the hell they are — but it’s always there. It is, in a very real sense, the story behind the story. Behind all these stories.
Which may be a funny thing to say when you consider there is no actual “narrative” on offer here in the traditional sense : no character or characters, plural, that we follow from point A to point B. No conflict, no drama, no plots or subplots. Whatever was going to happen to everyone here already has happened. And whatever that was is written all over their faces. So while I’m pretty resistant, personally, to the idea of mugshots being posted online from a sheer civil liberties perspective — shit, you’re still supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country — when an artist of Zenick’s caliber comes along and finds a way to bring out more humanity in his illustrations than actual photos ever could? I say let the jurors see them, as well.
Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South is self-published by Jeff Zenick and available for a measly five bucks from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro — which, I confess, is where I poached all the scans for this review from because I couldn’t find any images of the book anywhere else. I don’t know if that’s a crime — even in Texas — but I do know you can, and should, click the following link and order it :http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/troubled-mankind-of-the-modern-south-by-jeff-zenick/