It’s The End Of The Universe As We Know It, And I Feel Like Shit : Johnny Ryan’s “Prison Pit” Book Six (Advance Review)

It’s all been leading up to this : four years in the making, the sixth and final installment of Johnny Ryan’s formerly-annual (or thereabouts) paean to thoughtless juvenalia, Prison Pit, is upon us courtesy of Fantagraphics Books, and while it’s frankly impossible to conceive of anyone feeling in any way “attached” to protagonist Cannibal Fuckface, much less to the batshit crazy universe he calls home, it’s equally been impossible to conceive of any of the gleefully depraved hyper-violence, horrifyingly sick sex, and/or both that have appeared on pretty much every page of this series since his inception — impossible for anyone but Ryan, mind you.

Which is, of course, precisely how it should be. Ryan boxed himself into a corner with this project from the outset, it seems to me — he literally had no choice but to consistently “one-up” himself, otherwise what the fuck was the point? — but I give him credit for never disappointing in that respect : each blood-soaked, cum-drenched, shit-stained, puke-encrusted scene really was more morally, intellectually, and ethically bankrupt that the one that preceded it, and so going out with anything less than a bang? You and I both know that was never gonna happen.

And, of course, it doesn’t. Herr Fuckface and his jailer have been moving toward their final climactic confrontation for some little time, and while Ryan makes the getting there tough — as in, kill your way through an entire space-jail full of the most hardened psychopathic criminals in the entire fucking universe tough — the thick, syrupy sense of inevitability that permeates this volume is never once diminished, no matter how impossible the odds seem for our ostensible anti-“hero.” But could it be? Hiding in plain sight in the midst of all this carnage is there something at least vaguely resembling — a point?

Well — uhhmmm — sure, I guess.  And that may mark a first in Ryan’s career, come to think of it. A guy who’s made his bread and butter for the past couple of decades as the world’s oldest glue-huffing delinquent twelve-year-old has almost seemed downright allergic to the idea of meaning from day one, and has never shown much by way of ambition beyond a full-time compulsion to get as many people to say “dude, you’re sick” as (in?)humanly possible, but it’s starting to look like we’ve all been suckered. Lulled into a trap. Beaten down by sheer repetition into thinking that, yeah, this is all he’s got — and I say that as a reader who, however many “cool points” such an admission may cost me, has often enjoyed what he’s got.

What can I say, though? I was as clueless as anyone. I didn’t see the raison d’etre that, in retrospect, has always been there, and has been expressed with no more subtlety (which is to say, none at all) than anything else he’s been boring into our skulls. How could I possibly miss it? The point is — that there is no point!

I swear, I’m as stupid as a character in a Johnny Ryan comic. But it’s that air of inevitability in Prison Pit book six that I was talking about previously that finally clued me in, and even if I were too thick to pick up on it in the early going here, the final choice C.F. is offered by the architect of his sorrows — essentially “door one leads to your complete freedom, door two leads to the absolute and utter destruction of all of creation, forever” — well, that’s about as stark as it gets, isn’t it? At this point a “spoiler alert” of some sort would probably be the customary thing to do, it’s true, but come on — do you really harbor any doubts as to which way this is gonna go?

Nihilism is, of course, a “legit” school of thought, whether one agrees with it or not, and Ryan distills it to its essence in the last pages of this comic with a mix of his characteristic defiance, and entirely uncharacteristic pathos. C.F. seems to hesitate for a moment, but it’s only a moment — and at the end of the day (hell, the end of all things) giving the middle finger to the entire universe is not only something he can’t pass up, it’s his highest, indeed his only, calling. That’s worth pondering, I think, in a world full of school shooters, suicide bombers, “edgelord” internet trolls, and Donald Trump voters — not to equate all their actions, mind you, but the idea that existence itself is a zero-sum game and you might as well instill your will on as many people as possible via the most blunt instruments at your disposal is one that appeals to way too many people, and we have to find a way to address that before we can move beyond it.

In Prison Pit book six Johnny Ryan doesn’t posit any solution to — well, anything. And he’s probably not the guy to do that. But he does force us to stare into the abyss and to admit that it’s also staring back. In that respect, then, maybe his ending point is a starting point for a dialogue other, admittedly more considered and thoughtful, cartoonists can pick up on. Or maybe nothing matters and what if it did?

 

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Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/08/2018 – 04/14/2018

Three first issues and a seven hundredth? Yeah, this oughtta be an interesting column —

Crude #1 kicks off a new Skybound/Image six-parter from the creative team of Steve Orlando and Garry Brown revolving around a mix of family drama and Russian oil business shady dealings, with some sort of vague-at-this-point mystery thrown into the mix to — sorry — muddy the waters. Orlando has always been an up-and-down writer in my estimation, but he seems to be more “up” here, serving us a script that’s heavy on the characterization and stage-setting. This may just turn out to be yet another revenge yarn, but those are fun if they kick enough ass, and all indications are that this one’ll do just that — and Brown’s murky, expressionistic art is more than well-suited to the proceedings. At $3.99 a pop for singles this might be one to “trade-wait,” but since I’m already in, what the hell — I’ll stay in. I really dig the intrigue emanating from this comic.

Also from Image this week we have The Dead Hand #1, a modern-day spy thriller with its roots in the Cold War and — hey, is this a theme? — the Soviet Union. Kyle Higgins has cooked up an immediately-absorbing yarn here with a ton of backstory to explore in the months to come, while Stephen Mooney’s art is stylish, sleek, and reminiscent of the best pulp covers, and superstar colorist Jordie Bellaire finishes things off with a polished set of hues that give the pages a very fluid, cinematic look and feel. This one impressed me a lot and felt like four bucks wisely spent — I heartily recommend getting in on the ground floor.

I was pretty underwhelmed by Unholy Grail by the time all was said and done, it has to be said (it started off okay yet ended up just being a kind of “Cliff’s Notes Camelot” with pretty pictures) —  but apparently not so underwhelmed that I was unwilling to give The Brothers Dracul #1 , from the same creative team of writer Cullen Bunn and artist Mirko Colak, a shot. Like their previous series, this one is a mildly revisionist take on ancient legend, is published by Aftershock, and has a lush, atmospheric, “Eurocomics” look to it. Fortunately, the story seems a bit more ambitious here, with an emphasis not only on the future Count Dracula himself but also, as the title plainly states, his less-heralded (and therefore less-notorious) brother. I know, I know, I was a little worried that we would simply be getting another Dracula Untold here, too, but so far that doesn’t seem  to be the case. Things could go south in a hurry with this book — they did before — so I’m keeping it on a short leash, but what the hell? I felt like I got a damn solid read for my $3.99 with this first issue.

Finally, then, we come to Captain America #700, an extra-sized (and extra-priced, at $5.99) anniversary issue that also sees the conclusion to Mark Waid and Chris Samnee’s truncated “Lost in Time” pseudo-epic. I liked where this was headed — and, as always, loved the art — until the very end, when Waid takes the dull and predictable step of “retconning” the previous few issues out of existence. Cap’s back in our time like nothing ever happened — because, essentially, nothing did. And that’s kind of a shame, because what did happen (until, of course, it didn’t) was actually pretty interesting and borderline-relevant. Alas, it’s all water under the bridge now, Samnee is off to greener pastures, and I’m all out of cliches. Real quick though — the less said about the backup strip, the better. The art’s great — they dug out an old, unused Jack Kirby inventory story — but the script (and again, this is all on Waid) doesn’t match up convincingly with the visuals at all, and the modern computer coloring just bastardizes The King’s work. For a supposed “milestone” comic, this one should have been a lot better.

Okay, that’s me keeping it short and sweet for this installment, something I should probably try to do more often. I dunno what all we’ll have to talk about next week, but something tells me Action Comics #1000 will at least merit a brief examination, don’t you think? Catch you back here in seven short days!

“Qoberious” Vol. 1 : A Mystery Wrapped In A Riddle Inside — You Know The Drill

Seattle-based cartoonist D.R.T. is a figure cloaked in a certain amount of intrigue — in a recent TCJ interview he revealed that his name is Daniel, that he has a background in film and animation, and that he suffered a debilitating stroke at age 27 that forced him to learn to draw all over again, this time with his non-dominant left hand. His debut graphic novel, then, Qoberious Vol. 1 (released under the auspices of his own self-publishing imprint, Kvorious Comics),  is something that can only be called a true labor of love — emphasis on the “labor.”

Crucially, though, it in no way feels belabored — indeed, the hermetically-sealed reality D.R.T. creates literally seems to have flowed directly from his subconscious onto the page, and in many ways even feels like a work channeled from some other, perhaps higher, dimension. There is a raw immediacy to this book that has more than a hint of compulsion to it, the work itself imbued with an overwhelming sense of necessity that all its polish (and it is a highly polished volume indeed, with intricately-detailed art presented on thick, glossy paper between textured covers) can’t diminish. You know what they say — “if it’s in you, it’s gotta come out.”

Just precisely what it is that has come out of D.R.T. is very much an open question, though — which is rather the point. His “people” aren’t really people as we know them — more humanoid/sheep hybrids. Likewise, the world they inhabit bears only fleeting resemblance to our own — I suppose it could be set in Africa, but what the hell? That’s only a guess based on the broadly-outlined tribal culture that seems to be the pre-eminent social paradigm on display. Even that’s up in the air, though, as direct inter-personal relationships are very much the centerpiece of this (extremely) loosely-constructed “narrative,” with any hints about a larger societal structure beyond, or even outside, of them being just that — hints.

You never really know, then, where or how characters exist in relation to each other here, which is dizzying enough in its own right, but that’s minor-league stuff compared to the simple fact that you, as a reader, never know where you sit in relation to, or within, the work itself. There is a deeply interpretive and frenetic introductory scene that drops us in at the deepest of deep ends, several pass-throughs necessary in order to even develop theories as to what might be going on, and then we find ourselves propelled through a series of short “single issues” that somehow connect with each other — but how they do so is more a matter of emotional and thematic connection rather than anything concrete. If you’re not up for a challenge, folks, then seriously — don’t bother.

I’ll tell you this much, though, without a hint of either hesitation or equivocation — if you are up for a challenge, Qoberious Vol. 1 presents any number of them, each equal parts compelling, unnerving, fascinating, and perplexing. D.R.T. is on the record as saying that he wants readers to pick up something new every time they read his book, but it doesn’t even take that long — there is such a high-octane informational assault coming at you from all sides here that you pick up something new in terms of how to analyze and interpret not just each page, but each panel, before your eyes have even moved on to the next one. This isn’t an especially long work by any means, but it’s an unfathomably deep one, with abstract geometries, intensely personal fetishes, fluctuating identities, and truly alien scenarios somehow coalescing into something that can’t truly be understood — simply because it presents so many options for how to understand it all at once.

There are certain constants throughout, though, that can’t be denied — the alienation that D.R.T.’s characters feel not only from one another but within themselves no doubt speaks to his stroke-recovery experience; the dissolution of physical forms, of environments, of individual agency, of reason itself more than likely emerges from the same wellspring of hard-won inspiration; the transition of scenes from martial and combative to the vaguely (and sometimes less-than-vaguely) sexual draws clear parallels to the power-exchange dynamics inherent in each, and to the terror and ecstasy that accompanies the surrendering of the self. Connections exist here, perhaps even patterns, but don’t expect a trail of bread crumbs to lead you to them — they can only be intuited, felt, absorbed.

This is heady stuff, to be sure, delineated with rich and painstaking precision, awash in deep-but-muted hues that give the proceedings the aura of, I dunno, a box of old animation cels discovered in a dusty attic corner, a curiosity lost to time and unearthed by someone who can only begin to grasp at the obsessions, concerns, and yes, the fetishes of the person who created them. This is a comic that invites endless speculation, then dares you to grapple with the repercussions of the potential explanations you’ve come up with — that revels in contradictions as a way of forcing you to confront same within yourself — that questions the phenomenon of identity itself while prizing its acquisition as the one and only thing worth striving for. It is like nothing else anyone has ever created, and therefore quite unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Nothing can prepare you for it. Nothing can guide you through it. Nothing can compare to it. Nothing can make you forget it.

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A “strongest possible recommendation” is not strong enough for D.R.T.’s Qoberious Vol. 1. This may be the best $20.00 you spend all year; not just on comics, but in general. Order it directly from the cartoonist himself at http://kvoriouscomics.bigcartel.com/

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 04/01/2018 – 04/07/2018

This past week’s reading ranged in quality from the sublime to the dire, so let’s take it all in order, from best to worst:

Yellow Negroes And Other Imaginary Creatures presents a triptych of thematically inter-related stories by Parisian (by way of West Africa) cartoonist Yvan Alagbe focused on issues of race, class, the socio-economic divisions rising from/attendant with each, and the risks inherent in attempting to bridge said divides. Deeply rooted in the immigrant experience and illustrated in a breathtaking mix of styles from the intricately hyper-detailed to the amorphous and abstract, Alagbe is a master of utilizing space and shapes to confound expectation and personalize the political — truth be told, I can’t for the life of me recall ever seeing an artist imbue their drawings with so much charged, even combustible, visual information in such an expressive manner, each line a statement in and of itself yet also a component of something much larger. These works, originally published in Europe between 1996 and 2011 and here presented in English for the first time by New York Review Comics, ultimately explore the paradoxical yet co-dependent relationship that black racial identity and white racial identity have with each other, and what happens when the limits of each are breached and confronted in ways subtle and profound at the same time. What it means to be black is presented as largely a reaction to the expectations and strictures of white society, while what it means to be white is also inextricably linked with how blackness is viewed from the other side of the racial gulf, as well as how it views itself. There’s a longing to express a need for understanding here, a desire to teach and inform without resorting to lecturing, a kind of understated plea not to see the world as another sees it, but to feel it as they feel it. White readers especially should be prepared to be shifted well outside their comfort zones and to confront the realities of lives and voices too often marginalized, if not ignored entirely. This is striking, transformative work that will probably rank among the best releases of the year when all is said and done. The book retails for $22.95 and is worth every penny and then some.

I’ve sung the praises of Ed Piskor’s monumental re-telling of Marvel Mutant history in this column already, but to see the first two issues of his opus presented in glorious oversized format in X-Men : Grand Design Volume One really is downright breathtaking — and there’s a bit of irony here, as well, given that the packaging for this book mimics that of Piskor’s giant Hip Hop Family Tree tomes — which were, in turn, based on the “Marvel Treasury Edition” comics of the 1970s. In any case, I’ve learned one valuable lesson from all this — I’m not going to be buying the four remaining issues of this series in “singles,” and will instead wait for the two subsequent “treasury” collections, as this is undoubtedly the way this work was meant to be seen. Absolutely fucking glorious. Yeah, the $29.99 price tag is steep, but come on — five minutes on the internet and you know you can find it for a good deal less than that .

Back in the land of $3.99 “floppies” we’ve got Isola #1, co-written by Brenden Fletcher and Karl Kerschl, illustrated by Kerschl, and published by Image Comics. High-concept fantasy isn’t usually my bag, I’ll be the first to admit it, but this one grabbed me right out of the gate with its breathtaking art, fluid action, and absolutely lavish coloring courtesy of Msassyk, a name I admit is new to me. The story seems relatively straightforward — a female soldier named Captain Rook, apparently suffering from the effects of some spell, potion, or drug, is escorting a tiger queen named Olwyn to parts unknown for reasons unknown. There’s a lot of what’s generally termed “world-building” to be done here, but Fletcher and Kerschl are wisely choosing to let the stunning visuals do that — dialogue is sparse, caption boxes non-existent. They throw you in at the deep end and trust in the strength of their storytelling ability to entice, rather than overwhelm, readers. The result? Supremely confident comic-booking that is cinematic, thrilling, and captivating from first page to last. This one has “unfolding epic” written all over it.

Goddamn — three books, three winners! But didn’t I say that this week’s offerings “ranged in quality from the sublime to the dire” ? Time for the “dire” part —

Xerxes : The Fall Of The House Of Darius And The Rise Of Alexander #1 is an absolute mess in every respect, and Dark Horse editorial should have done the merciful thing and simply rejected this 300 sequel/tie-in upon delivery. Seriously, you’re better off just burning a five dollar bill than spending it on this garbage. It’s tempting to have no sympathy for Frank Miller given his extreme asshole-ism, but I take no pleasure at all in slagging off his efforts simply because he’s clearly in very poor health and has been for some time —and trust me when I say it shows here. Miller’s figure drawing is sloppy to the point of farce, his compositions make no sense, backgrounds are virtually non-existent, and his use of space haphazard and ill-considered. I was hardly a fan of 300 for any number of reasons, among them its extreme homophobia (which also rears its ugly head here) and romanticized bloodshed, but damn : at least it was exciting to look at. This comic, by contrast, is dull and lifeless at its best moments, downright embarrassing at its worst. The absence of Lynn Varley is felt on every page, it’s true, but let’s not kid ourselves : even she couldn’t save this thing. A flat and uninvolving script doesn’t help matters any, either, it must be said, but that’s the least of the book’s problems — this is just atrocious, ugly, even cringe-worthy stuff to look at. And the saddest part? Given his current physical condition, it’s not hard to imagine that Miller probably worked a lot harder at this than he has on other projects.

Seriously, publishing this is an inherently un-dignified act, and out of respect for what Miller used to mean to comics, the next four issues should just be cancelled. I may not care for the man’s retrograde politics and malignant prejudices, but he certainly doesn’t deserve to go out this way, suffering and straining to produce work that literally has no chance of even being marginally passable. If anyone from Mike Richardson’s company is reading this, I implore you to do the right thing and nip this in the bud.

And on that note — let’s call this column a wrap. I haven’t even looked at next week’s solicits yet, let alone my digital preview “copies” from various publishers, so I have no idea what’s coming out — but chances are we won’t have anything like the yin/yang polarities of this week. Join me back here and seven days and we’ll see how right, or wrong, that prediction turns out to be.

“Mudbite” : Dave Cooper Is Back, And Ready To Make You Feel Uneasy

It’s been awhile — 15 years, to be precise — since seminal underground id-baring cartoonist Dave Cooper released a wholly original graphic novel, and while the length of his latest, Fantagraphics-published book, Mudbite, may make it more of a “novella” than anything else, the main thing is that Cooper has, indeed, returned to the fold, his alter-ego protagonist Eddy Table in tow, and that his work as just as singularly unsettling as ever, maybe even moreso. Prepare, then, to feel very disturbed by the things you’re capable of laughing at.

And you will laugh at Mudbite‘s two stories, “Bug Bite” and “Mud River” (now you know where the book’s title comes from), of that there is no doubt — but you’ll just as surely find yourself cringing, scratching your head, even needing to pick your jaw up off the floor on occasion. The biggest question you’ll probably be left with is “where does this guy come up with this stuff?,” but never fear, that’s where your handy armchair answer-man comes in : this is coming straight from Cooper’s subconscious, probably even his dreams. At least I hope that’s the case.

Most of our dreams, I’d wager, would come off as being seriously screwed-up to an outside observer, and for that reason there aren’t many of us who be either foolish or brave enough to transcribe them into pictures and words, but Cooper suffers from no such sense of propriety : like it, lump it, or loathe it, this is a warts-and-all look into the deeper recesses of one of the more idiosyncratic minds in contemporary cartooning — one with, it would appear, zero fucks left to give.

A family trip to a vice-laden big city is the bare-bones premise at the heart of  “Bug Bite” while a rapidly-encroaching natural disaster forms the equally-basic backbone of “B-side” (the book is “flippable,” with each segment having its own cover) story “Mud River,” but both are cut from very much the same cloth and revolve around similar neuroses of guilt, shame, alienation from one’s own desires and authentic self, and fear — of being exposed as a “perv,” of losing impulse control, of blowing up an ostensibly happy domestic situation by betraying one’s spouse and/or disappointing one’s children — dreams have a way of exposing ourselves to ourselves, and it may just be that Cooper is on to something here: lay out your most bizarre and shameful fantasy scenarios in a public forum, and the things that fill your heart and head with misgivings about your own nature and character tend to lose their power to hinder, even cripple, you. After all, if everyone knows you want to go for a ride inside a giant woman’s butt-crack (yes, Coop — I mean Table really does that here), most anything else they learn about you is going to seem downright tame in comparison, and who knows? Some big, billowy, jiggly giantess with a generously-proportioned rump may even show up at your door and haul you off.

Ah, yes, those Cooper women — fleshy, cellulite-flaunting gargantuettes who dress like streetcorner hookers, torment the weak wills of men by dint of their very existence, and do it all with an entirely unforced obliviousness — they’re rather a problematic feature of his work, aren’t they? Cooper’s bodily fetishes seem to pick up more or less directly where Crumb’s leave off, and operate with at least as little regard for their subj — sorry, objects, since that really is all they’re treated as, if we’re being absolutely honest . The gal who gets Eddy to safety tucked inside her ass in “Mud River” is literally brain-dead for most of the strip, and the second her perceptive faculties and reasoning return, her utility is over, while in “Bug Bite” a woman (possibly an old flame?) of equally generous proportions exists solely to tempt him while his far-less-curvy wife is pictured as a well-meaning, if hopelessly naive, sort who probably does a fine job of tending to the home and raising the kids, but is a ball-buster by default simply because her presence in his life prevents him from chasing after the sorts of ladies that really get his motor running. The idea that anyone with a vagina might have a reason for her existence beyond either being a representation of all he can’t have or a reason for why he can’t have it doesn’t enter into the equation here at all.

To his (marginal) credit, at least Cooper doesn’t idealize the mindset he portrays his stand-in as inhabiting, but he’s not exactly critical of its de-humanizing implications, either : Table has been a self-indulgent cad with no control over his reactions to stimuli since way back in his first appearance in Weasel, and while he may have gotten older since then, he’s clearly none the wiser when it comes to bottling up the teenage horn-dog misogynist inside. His attempts to put on a brave face and/or solve the problems his that his weakness, lust, stupidity, and avarice cause invariably have entirely-foreseeable-to-all-but-him consequences — particularly true in the case of “Bug Bite,” which lays out a nonchalantly-delivered “whammy” of an ending — but being honest about your tendency to objectify and taking the authorial view that eschewing said tendency only leads to disaster is, at the very least, akin to saying “too bad he can’t just give in to each and every one of his darkest impulses, everything would work out so much better if he did.” Like I said, this book’s going to make you feel pretty damn uncomfortable in places.

The art mitigates that queasy sensation somewhat, of course : Cooper’s bold, exaggerated, hyper-kinetic style, rendered in lush and vibrant, though hardly garish, tones is about as “cartoony” as it gets, and definitely couches the blunt-force impact of the combustible subject matter, as does the warped “dream logic” of the proceedings (the hallway in a junk shop goes on forever and transitions into an outdoor locale filled with strange parasitic creatures as opposed to just, ya know, leading outside), but just because even a quick glance at this book betrays its obvious Jim Woodring influence doesn’t mean that he and Cooper have anything like the same sort of dreamscapes unfolding first in their minds, then through their hands (and drawing implements) and finally onto paper. There’s a seediness to both Cooper’s desires and environs that cause them to mirror — hell, amplify — each other, and while both cartoonists excel at depicting hermetically-sealed alternate realities that play by an internally-consistent set of unwritten, but intuitively understood, rules, there is charm lurking beneath Woodring’s fascinations, whereas Cooper’s make you feel like you need a shower after even less-than-prolonged exposure to them.

All of which means that Mudbite may not exactly qualify as “dangerous” imagining — to hell with Freud or Jung, any home-office therapist has probably heard objectively “worse” than Cooper delineates and expounds upon here — but transmitting material of this nature? Well, that could lead to some friction and turbulence at home, I shouldn’t wonder. We’re not in Joe-Matt-jerking-off-into-a-Kleenex-tissue territory here or anything, but that, at least, is relatively easy to relate to and speaks more to the garden-variety debauchery that the conscious individual is entirely capable of. Cooper, however, is far more concerned with emptying the contents of his subconscious, and as a result many of the scenarios we are privy to here, over-the-top and absurd as they may be (okay, are), really do cause you to hope that not too many guys go to bed at night and see these sorts of visions dancing behind their closed eyelids.

Still, good art is, by nature if not by definition, about illuminating what is typically obscured by shadow, and in that sense Cooper is carrying on a proud tradition — as well as cutting through the bullshit on a personal level. That doesn’t, of course, automatically mean that he’s adding something new to the conversation between artist and audience, nor that we’re in any way particularly enriched by his decision to throw open the curtains of his interior life and force us to look at what most, probably sensibly, hide from view. Hang-ups are a drag, sure — but as anyone who has spent time around somebody who loses all their inhibitions after they’ve had a few drinks can tell you, they do serve a purpose, in that they prevent us from having to learn more about an individual than we’d probably care to.

Dave Cooper is a guy you can get to know more than a bit too well through his work, and so for that reason Mudbite, which is probably his most in-depth look at the contents within his own mind yet, will hold a lot more appeal to those who tend to listen to, even engage with, the guy who treats the barstool like a confessional rather than those who move down to the end to get the hell away from him and enjoy their drink in peace. As a comic, then, its virtues are probably relative to the individual who happens to be reading it. As an act of “art therapy,” though, it’s efficacy — for good, ill, or a little of both — is absolutely undeniable.

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

 

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/25/2018 – 03/31/2018

I dunno why I don’t do this more often with these Weekly Reading Round-Ups — well, actually, now that I think about it, I do: there have just been way too goddamn many first issues to talk about lately — but I figured this week I’d check in on the relative creative health of a handful of series that I’ve talked up previously and see if I feel as generously pre-disposed toward them today as I did when they came charging out of the gate —

Ales Kot and Danijel Zezelj just released the third issue of their 12-part Image series Days Of Hate, and while I desperately want to still like where this thing is going given its timeliness, topicality, and superb art, I find the book hitting the same stumbling block that too many Kot-scripted titles tend to, namely : his story is becoming subsumed under the crushing weight of the points he wants to make with it. Nobody is more dismayed at the rise of “alt-right” nationalism and xenophobia than I am — fuck Trump, fuck everything he stands for, and fuck everyone who voted for him just for good measure — but here in #3, our dystopian premise already firmly established, all we get is a lot of talking heads droning on at length. And truthfully they’re not even talking heads, they’re eulogizing heads, as our dual protagonists blather on about each other — and the problems of the world at large — to either captive, or capturing, audiences, and regardless of whether their monologues veer toward matters personal or political, they essentially have the same lecturing, heavy-handed tone, and read exactly like the clumsy info-dumps they are. Zezelj and colorist extraordinaire Jordie Bellaire do their level best to maintain reader interest with their visuals — no easy task given that this chapter mainly takes place in an interrogation room and a car, and the only “variety” to be found is in subtle facial expression and body language “tics” — but it’s ultimately work done in vain, as Kot’s dreary sermons literally suck the life out of every page. I have all the time in the world for political comics, particularly those of a leftist bent, but I’m giving this book to the halfway point to get something resembling actual narrative momentum going, otherwise I’m out.

Also from Image this week we’ve got The Beef #2, and Ales Kot should take note : if you’re gonna go the “un-subtle diatribe” route, this is the way to do it. Writers Richard Starkings and Tyler Shainline have plenty of points to make, none of them positive, about carnivores, xenophobes, spoiled rich kids, captains of industry, and cops, but they balance their politics with a welcome dose of absurdity, creepiness, and humor. This book’s not for everyone — how many comics featuring a splash page of the title character shitting his guts out on the toilet are? — but to hell with everyone : this is a comic for you, the discerning reader who can find a diamond amidst the degradation, the sublime within the sick. Shaky Kane is brilliant, of course — he always was, is, and shall be — but it’s the overall off-kilter tone of the series that’s really working for me at this point. This is dark, twisted, surreal shit that keeps you deliriously off-balance throughout. Yeah, they’re taking themselves seriously, no matter how whacked-out events get, but they leave it up to you whether you want to feel sympathy or contempt for their characters, whether you want to laugh or cringe at their actions, whether you want to burn your retinas out after reading the comic or go back to page one and start all over again. This is that rarest of books, the kind seldom seen since the heyday of the undergrounds — one that respects the intelligence of its readers while giving them a richly-deserved middle finger at the same time.

Saladin Ahmed and Sami Kivela’s Abbott just straight-up rocks, and #3 ranks as the best issue of this Boom! Studios five-parter so far. Our intrepid reporter Elana might just be in over her head with this supernatural stuff, which is saying something because cool customers don’t come much cooler than her, but the revelation of exactly what the force she’s up against can do kicks things into another gear altogether — even if it’s essentially an occult-ish take on one of the weirder powers of the old DC character B’Wana Beast. That doesn’t matter because me, though, because near as I can tell, sheer originality was never what this book was going for anyway. I’m still absolutely digging the socio-political authenticity of the early-’70s Detroit setting, the street-level grittiness of Kivela’s art, and the expertly-crafted, downright meticulous mystery-novel pacing of Ahmed’s script — but who are we kidding? It’s the Pam Grier bad-assness of the protagonist herself that sets this one apart and above almost anything else on the racks right now. I dearly hope this thing is selling, because even though this is barely over half over, I already need a sequel.

And speaking of potential sequels, or lack thereof, I really do wonder whether or not we’re going to be getting more of Peter Milligan and Tess Fowler’s Kid Lobotomy. The ending to #6 definitely sets the stage for further exploration of this surreal world — in fact, it propels things into potentially-quite-exciting new territory — but with the guy who brought Shelly Bond into IDW in the first place, Chris Ryall, now out the door, I get the feeling that the entire Black Crown imprint might be hanging by a thread. I know they’ve got a couple of new mini-series already announced, and good for them, but this is a damn fickle comics marketplace these days, and anything can happen. I’m fairly certain that I’d like to see more of this comic — the story’s been up-and-down, sure, but when it’s worked, it’s come as close to achieving that ephemeral “vintage Milligan” vibe as anything we’ve seen in at least a decade, and Fowler’s art has been consistently up to the task of delineating the unreliable-by-design proceedings at every turn. It feels like there’s plenty more as-yet-untapped “high weirdness” ready to burst forth from these creators, and frankly this reads much better as a stage-setting “story arc” than it does a self-contained narrative. A number of characters were given pretty effing detailed back-stories here, and if this is the end of the road it’s going to feel like a lot of set-up for very little payoff. It’s all down to sales, of course, so hopefully the volume one trade does well enough that whatever fence-sitting may be happening on a corporate level is overcome. No,this wasn’t the smoothest six-issue run by any stretch, but it was fascinating and curious and idiosyncratic enough to make me hope that this issue is just the end of the beginning, rather than “the end” proper.

Aaaaaannnndddd that’s a wrap. Next week we’ve got — new Frank Miller? That could be such a disaster. Unless, of course, it turns out not to be — but the odds really aren’t in its favor, are they?