Forever The Outsider : Casanova Frankenstein’s “In The Wilderness”

It’s one thing to subsist on the societal, economic, even social margins for decades — it’s another to subsist on those margins and still not fit in.

Welcome to the life of Casanova Frankenstein, who “graduated” from being the only black nerd in his social milieu to the only black punk to the only black cartoonist. A man who’s on the outside looking in — at the other outsiders.

We all wondered what happened to the guy formerly known as Al Frank in the long interregnum between The Adventures Of Tad Martin #5 and its eventual follow-up, #sicksicksix over 20 years later, and the new Fantagraphics Underground collection of Frankenstein’s short autobio strips, In The Wilderness, fills in some of those blanks, as well as helps set the stage for what should, by all rights, be the year in which this long-neglected cartoonist finally gets something akin to his due. After all, his Lulu-published omnibus collection of Tad has recently hit, and there’s an all-new issue due later this year, a “raw cut” of which has already been released as The Adventures Of Tad Martin Super-Secret Special #1. Maybe, finally, it’s a good time to be Cassie Frankenstein.

Which rather flies in the face of most of these hard-luck and hard-scrabble stories, rife as they are with shitty jobs, shitty living circumstances, shitty relationships, and even shittier attempts at relationships. Really, the whole thing could easily come off as a litany of despair, except for one thing : Frankenstein simply refuses to allow it to be one.

And thank whatever god you may or may not believe in for that, because without his innate humor and sense of the absurd, his ability to find a kernel of humanity buried beneath even the thickest and most all-encompassing layers of misery, this really would be a damn tough slog. As things are, though? There’s something of a borderline celebratory tone to the work that seeps through when the strips are read in succession, as knowledge that he’ll never fit in gradually changes to begrudging acceptance of his situation to, finally, a “fuck off if you don’t like me, it matters to me not in the least” outlook that was probably a necessary view to develop not only for the sake of Frankenstein’s art, but for his continued emotional survival.

The exhaustive and superb interview conducted by Fanta head honcho Gary Groth with the cartoonist at the end of the book verifies some of these suspicions plus many more, but really, it’s not like the work itself is subtle or leaves you guessing in any way — this is raw, immediate, visceral stuff, unmediated by any considerations for its “end-users.” Trusting that your creative efforts will find an audience on its own terms takes guts, but it doesn’t seem like Frankenstein ever slowed down to the point where he even concerned himself with such prosaic trivialities. Most of these strips look and read as if made for an audience of one — that “one” being the auteur himself — and all evidence suggests that was precisely the case, as no quarter or compromise is either offered or, crucially, expected anywhere in the slap-dash scrawlings or guttural bare-bones prose that fills these pages. The cumulative effect may indeed be a gut-punch but, like all gut-punches, you’re damn well guaranteed to remember it — and this one comes from the gut, as well.

If you can’t get behind that, then get out of the way — these aren’t comics for the faint of heart, the weak of constitution, or the strong of conscience. In the gap between Tad’s two most “recent” issues, it appears the creator adopted many of the “nothin’ matters and what if it did” mannerisms and attitudes of his creation, and now your guess is as good as mine as to where the one ends and the other begins. There may be something at least semi-tragic about that, but it also seems inevitable, perhaps even advantageous, as one can’t really make it as a perpetual iconoclast-by-default and give too much of a fuck about — well, anything. Including oneself.

This, then, is nihilism as coping strategy, no doubt, but one adopted as a last resort.  Cassie Frankenstein doesn’t present himself as being necessarily likable, sympathetic, or even especially considerate or well-considered, but he does present an unfiltered view of who he was, became, now is — and I wouldn’t have him any other way.

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