Talk about an eye-opener!
To date, my only exposure to the work of Edie Fake has been via his Gaylord Phoenix comic, which certainly doesn’t fit anyone’s definition of “conventional,” but which nevertheless is structured, albeit perhaps tenuously, along standard-issue linear narrative lines.
Not so with the book under our metaphorical microscope here today, Little Stranger, a multi-faceted, deeply emotive collection of short-form strips published a few months ago by Secret Acres that presents work culled from Fake’s own ‘zines self- published between 2002 and 2017. Simply put — and I say this with utmost respect — most of these strips are just plain weird. Delightfully so, in most cases, but you have to come into this book prepared to do some serious interpretive work yourself, as many of them discard with the concept of “narrative” altogether, and those that don’t adhere to it very loosely.
From the “Clowns” one-pagers interspersed throughout to the metaphysical journey of a snake whose body is made up of the letters of the alphabet to the lustful escapades of a person who undergoes impromptu gender transition by means of strategically-placed leeches (yes, you read that right) to the de facto instructional guide on what to do with a witch’s pituitary gland and everything in between, these are abstract visual explorations illustrated in a staggering variety of styles ranging from highly detailed to playfully experimental to vibrantly colorful to stark and austere. Certain themes present themselves again and again — body horror, gender dysphoria, physical and mental bondage, human/animal hybridization — but it’s certainly no exaggeration to say that one literally never knows what the next page in this collection will hold.
All of which means this is a conceptually exciting book, but also one that is the very definition of a “mixed bag” that will, of necessity, confound most readers as often as it pleases them. From the perspective of this critic that’s an inherently good thing, and I’m more than willing to concede that some of the strips that fall a bit “flat” for me are no less imaginative and well-executed than the ones that hit the mark. The “running order” strikes me as a bit curious in that genuinely horrific stories often directly follow on from light-hearted and humorous ones and vice-versa, effectively discarding any sort of attempt at establishing tonal consistency even for brief periods of time, but on second pass-through I found this “grab-bag” approach to assemblage to be quite effective as it mirrors on the “macro” level the notion that there is no solid footing to be had here that many — hell, most — of the strips individually evoke on a “micro” level.
Obviously there’s a lot to be gleaned about Fake’s own perspectives on issues of gender fluidity and identity here (he’s trans himself, as one would probably intuit from the book’s contents even if they went in knowing nothing about him), and his generally playful attitude toward what’s broadly defined as “kink” is easily-discernible throughout, but some “grand statement” on either the trans experience or sexual liberation isn’t something that falls within Little Stranger‘s remit. Rather, it’s an exorcism of one cartoonist’s subconscious that features recurring obsessions, ideas, concerns — and, yes, nightmares — presented from a number of different perspectives and communicated in a number of distinctly different ways. I’m still wrapping my head around much of it, and think that I will be for quite some time, but that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize it for the utterly unique, visceral, challenging, necessary work that it clearly is.