There’s one in every school — the kid with the depraved imagination. The kid with no reservations about tapping into the deepest recesses of his or her id and displaying the contents for all to see. The kid who’s something more than just a garden-variety oddball. The kid who hears, at least once every day, “dude, you’re sick” — and, fortunately for us all, for whatever unfathomable cosmic reason, those kids can usually draw.
They may not be especially good at it, mind you, but it’s more about ideas than execution. It’s about using paper and pencil as their instruments for self-exorcism, as interpretive devices for channeling what’s within to the outside world. About cooking up the sickest, most extreme shit imaginable not just because they can, but because they must.
Max Clotfelter was one such kid, and in his 2016 self-published mini, The Warlok Story, he reflects back on his time as resident school sicko, on the effect that being “found out” by adults had on his life, on how circumstances at home at the time probably informed his work — yet this is no mere slice of nostalgic reminiscence; in truth, it’s actually a rigorous piece of self-examination, a first-person analysis of not only why the author drew deliberately outrageous doodles and short comics stories, but what his compulsive need to do so said about him then, and how this extended period of his youth informed, and continues to inform, the adult that he eventually became.
Parallels to the saga of Mike Diana spring to mind immediately when reading this comic, especially since both gentlemen upset the sensibilities of delicate readers in the so-called “Bible Belt,” but Clotfelter was doing what he did at a younger age, only distributed his work around the classroom rather than via the USPS, and his strips, while grotesque, didn’t concern themselves much (if at all) with themes of sexual abuse. The full weight of the law, then, didn’t come down on him like a ton of bricks, but that doesn’t mean the powers that be didn’t seek to stifle his creativity in the name of the “common good” — indeed, the “thought police,” in the form of school psychiatrists, administrators, and teachers, adjudicated our guy Max to be an “unhealthy influence” (on others, sure — but primarily, it would seem, on himself), and so he literally was forbidden to draw the “adventures” of his sadistic, hyper-violent protagonist, Warlok, and his notebooks, school locker, and even bedroom were subject to random searches to make damn sure he was staying on the straight, narrow, and tedious path forced upon him. So much for that vaunted “first amendment” we hear so much about, huh?
Which isn’t to say that he didn’t figure out a way to keep a “secret stash” for himself, of course, but going to art school and discovering women and drugs (not necessarily in that order) finally proved to be too mighty a set of circumstances for even the indomitable Warlok to vanquish, and while Clotfelter has continued to refine his technique over the years (although the cartooning in this comic has a pleasingly and deliberately “amateurish” look to it, and is even presented on faux-“ruled” pages, composition book-style), his fascination with the proscribed, the tasteless, the forbidden has, thank goodness (or badness, take your pick) continued apace, as anyone who’s followed his work in any number of anthologies over the years — as well as in “solo” publications such as Pube Smoke or Andros — can attest to. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that he’s picked up the gauntlet thrown down by earlier “extreme” cartoonists such as S. Clay Wilson, Rory Hayes, Joe Coleman, and the aforementioned Mr. Diana, but that he’s unquestionably done it his own way, his strips generally being as firmly rooted in the tradition of autobiographical comics as they are in the aesthetics of so-called “ugly art.”
That dichotomy is thrown into sharp relief when the more “mature” and “level-headed” Clotfelter discovers the discarded “Warlok” drawings and comics of his teenage years and feels equal parts ashamed of, yet mysteriously compelled by, them — and so, in a very real sense, this story is an exercise in coming to terms with his younger self, an act not so much of simply remembering as it is of reconciling. Anybody who’s near, at, or beyond mid-life can certainly relate to this — to the idea of looking at who we used to be and finding that person to be both immediately familiar and downright alien simultaneously — but most of us don’t have an actual artistic record to confront us with the similarities and differences of our past and present selves in stark and unavoidable fashion. Reflecting on who you were, what you’ve done, and where you’ve come from is one thing — having your past literally answer back, with evidence in tow, is something else altogether.
If this all sounds like pretty weighty stuff for a modest mini-comic to tackle, rest assured that it is, but Clotfelter never gets heavy-handed and he maintains a frank, even conversational, tone throughout, frequently managing to see the funny (or at least ironic) side to life experiences that left indelible marks, probably even scars, but that also, if nothing else, conclusively prove the old adage that (say it with me now) “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — and this is very strong work indeed.
The Warlok Story is more than just a terrific mini-comic — at a paltry $2.00, it’s also a terrific bargain. I grabbed the scans for this review from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro, and that’s also (at least to my knowledge) the only place online where the book can be purchased, so do the right thing and order it up at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/the-warlok-story-by-max-clotfelter/