One Week Break

Just a quick update, there will be no reviews this week, a major project landed in my lap at work with a tight deadline. Very sorry about that, especially for the people who have sent me comics and are still waiting on their reviews. Rest assured that I WILL get to everything.

Patreon updates will continue as usual this week.

Of Comic Books, Capitalism, And Culture War Crackpots, Or : What A Bisexual Superman Means — And What It Doesn’t, Part Three Of Three

Show of hands — who remembers that time when Superman died?

Okay, that looks like everybody. Now, how about when he was replaced by a handful of impostors after he died? Or when he rose from the dead like another favorite fictional character?

A few less hands, but still most of you. Let’s go a bit deeper : how about the time he got electrical powers and turned blue and adopted a new costume to go with his new look and abilities? Or when he broke into two separate beings, the other one red, when the whole “electric blue” thing started to run out of gas? How about when he became an evil cyborg? Or when he lost his memory? Or when he left Earth “forever”? Or when he quit being a hero to live a normal life?

The point here being, if you hadn’t guessed already, that while I agree that the supposed revelation of Jon Kent’s equally-supposed bisexuality is a publicity stunt, at least to an extent, it follows in a long line of Superman-related publicity stunts — in fact, it could be fairly argued that every significant change/development in the “life” of this franchise (I hesitate to call Superman a character anymore; he’s a billion-dollar property) has been a publicity stunt, even (hell, especially) major upheavals to the status quo such as revealing his secret identity to Lois Lane, proposing to her, marrying her, and having a kid with her. All of these events and more were hyped in advance to maximize sales of the issues they took place in, yet none of them — even the time he renounced his American citizenship to protest US foreign policy, even his frigging death — were met with anywhere near the level of vitriol that his son’s “coming out” has engendered so far.

Granted, social media wasn’t “a thing” back when many of these much-ballyhooed occurrences went down, but that’s almost immaterial to the central question here, which is : why was there little to no uproar about any of this stuff in any venue, while the revelation that Jon is (or could be) bi has everyone from the most popular conservative commentators to casual comic book “tourists” doing their best Chicken Little imitations? I think we all know the answer.

It’s not like this publicity-driven approach to “developing” the Superman franchise is confined solely to the so-called “Modern Age” of comics, either — back in the “Silver Age,” for instance, before 24/7 hype machines were part and parcel of every publisher’s arsenal, editor Mort Weisinger tasked writers such as Otto Binder with thinking up new gimmicks to sell kids Super-books every single month. Most of these revolved around “alternate reality” or “dream” yarns where Superman did things like grow a weird-shaped head, turn into a monkey, lose his powers, conquer the world, or even — get this — marry Lois Lane, but this monthly act of one-upmanship also carried over into issues that were “Not a Dream! Not a Hoax! Not an Imaginary Story!” as well, a good percentage of which featured Superman undergoing similar temporary weird transformations, the only difference being they were usually brought on by exposure to ever-more-exotic varieties of Kryptonite. Stan Lee might have been plying his trade as comics’ first carnival-barker over at Marvel, but people tend to forget that his hucksterism was something of a desperate ploy to keep up with the Joneses — the really crazy shit was happening over at DC.

Which means, of course, that Superman was — and remains to this day — far from the only hero in either company’s roster to be batted about from one ridiculous extreme to another in hopes of ginning up attention and the sales that go along with it, but it sure seems ironic (to put it as kindly as possible) that the one character development that’s driven people the craziest is one that’s actually a fairly pedestrian aspect of everyday life. I mean, what happens more often — someone “coming out,” or someone transforming into a goddamn tree? I get that comic books, like all other popular media, rely on suspension of disbelief to be effective, but come on here, people.

Prior to Jon Kent kissing a boy, the most recent major “events” in Superman’s printed-page adventures were him revealing his secret identity to the world and the series itself starting over with a new first issue. The latter happens in comics far more frequently than those who don’t read them could ever possibly fathom and really doesn’t even count as a “landmark” occasion anymore no matter how badly publishers hope and pray audiences will still fall for it, but the Superman “coming out” as Clark Kent is certainly a far bigger change to the overall mythos than a secondary Superman whose sexuality had never even been established “coming out” as bi, wouldn’t you say? Yet the army of “don’t change anything” traditionalists who have sprung out of the woodwork to publicly foam at the mouth like rabid culture war dogs about Jon’s first kiss were almost nowhere to be found when Superman stood at a podium in front of every news reporter and camera they could cram into a panel and told the world his truth. Which brings me, at long last, to my final point —

Sadly and clearly, homophobic bigotry is as alive and well as we figured, in our darkest moments, that it was. So even though I take what some might consider to be a dim and cynical view toward DC/Warner/AT&T’s motivations as far as having a bisexual Superman go (I just call it being a realist), let’s not forget that there are communities where damn near everyone gets their “news” from Fox, Newsmax, or the AT&T-sponsored OAN. Communities where reactionary assholes like Donald Trump or our “friend” from yesterday’s installment, Josh Mandel, are not just supported, but supported nearly unanimously. And in those communities, LGBTQIA+ kids don’t just “have it rough” — their lives could literally be in danger if their schoolmates, in some cases even their families, knew their truth. One of the few safe refuges available to kids who don’t fit in has always been “nerd” or “geek” culture — comic books, sci-fi, video games, table-top RPGs, etc. — so reaching out to those teens and young adults and letting them know they’re welcome in comics, no matter what reactionary nitwits like the “comicsgaters” say, isn’t just the right thing to do, for some folks it’s downright essential. To the extent, then, that having Superman : Son Of Kal-El feature a kiss between the star of the book and a guy he’s sweet on helps make the life of even one persecuted, closeted, or persecuted and closeted queer young person a little easier — or even just makes them feel represented — it’s the right thing to do regardless of the reasons behind it.

The DC/Warner/AT&T trifecta of capitalistic greed may only value the LGBTQIA+ community as consumers — but that doesn’t mean the comics community itself doesn’t value them as people. Let’s make sure that we (and I say “we” because this is particularly incumbent upon “cishet” folks such as myself) all do our best every day to let them know that we do.

Of Comic Books, Capitalism, And Culture War Crackpots, Or : What A Bisexual Superman Means — And What It Doesn’t, Part Two Of Three

“Bisexual Superman in a kids’ comic? They are literally trying to destroy this country!” screeched one Josh Mandel from his twitter account, underneath a picture of the Jon Kent iteration of Superman kissing his purported new love interest, Jay Nakamura, taken from the forthcoming Superman : Son Of Kal-El #5.

A quick perusal of Mandel’s timeline shows that these kinds of histrionics are basically the guy’s stock in trade, with gems including “Christopher Columbus was a great American” (uhhhh — dude, don’t know how to break it to you but he wasn’t any kind of American), “You can’t spell panDEMic without DEM — is this a coincidence?,” “The Bible and the Constitution aren’t supposed to be separate, ” or the one that probably made me laugh the loudest, a poll where he asked “Of the various types of illegals flooding across the border, will more crimes be committed by Muslim terrorists or Mexican gangbangers?” The problem though, of course, is that there’s really nothing funny about any of this crap because Mandel, as you either already know or are likely to have surmised, isn’t some drooling psychopath locked in a padded cell (though he should be) or someone’s crazy uncle safely squirreled away at the far end of the family dinner table on Thanksgiving, he’s actually a pretty big deal. : he’s the prospective front-runner for the GOP nomination in the Ohio senate race.

That being said, and leaving aside the depressing reality that Republican primaries are now right wing dick-measuring contests where the winner is almost always the craziest-sounding son of a bitch running, it’s actually what’s left unspoken in Mandel’s Superman-related bit of manufactured outrage (please remind me again which side of the political ledger is the one that’s “triggered” all the time by even the tiniest little things?) that’s even more concerning than the nonsense he blurts out. No one else appears to have asked it yet, so I will : who, exactly, does he mean by “they”?

Surely it’s not DC or its parent entities, Warner and AT&T. Odds are better than good than when the next quarterly campaign finance reports are made public, they’ll probably show that he happily accepted their money, and as a “free-market conservative,” he’s a lead-pipe cinch to do their bidding whenever telecom-friendly deregulation legislation comes rolling around . Likewise, it’s doubtful that he’s referring to Tom Taylor and John Timms, the writer and artist of the comic he’s all constipated over — he doesn’t have the first clue who they even are. No, it seems pretty clear to me that the target of Mandel’s performative wrath is bisexuals, at the very least, and more than likely the LGBTQIA+ community in general. They are the “they” who are “literally trying to destroy this country.”

Which is, of course, absurd on its face. I don’t know how to break it to Mandel and his mouth-breathing ilk, but the entire country could wake up bisexual tomorrow morning and it wouldn’t “destroy” a single fucking thing. Hell, if such a thing were to happen it would probably do Mandel some good, since he might have more luck finding someone who’s willing to yank out the stick he’s so clearly got shoved up his ass. Time will tell whether or not his strategy of trolling his way into the US senate works, but if it does, that will be both a sad commentary on the overall mental health of the Ohio electorate and good news for the the nearest pharmacy to Mandel’s DC residence with a well-stocked selection of suppositories.

Still, as anyone — even a Republican — can tell you, there’s no crazier type of Republican than an Arizona Republican (Barry Goldwater, Evan Meacham, Jan Brewer, Paul Gosar — it’s a truly impressive list of thoroughly unimpressive conservative whack-jobs driven mad by the desert heat), so you can be sure they weren’t gonna let some nutcase-come-lately out of Ohio steal the spotlight afforded by the Superman news all to himself. To that end, Arizona GOP congressional candidate Josh (what’s the deal with that name?) Barnett tweeted “Why does Hollywood have to ruin everything?#superman,” never mind that Hollywood has exactly nothing to do with the present Super-situation at all, and current Arizona GOP state senator Wendy Rogers adamantly put her foot down, declaring “Superman loves Louis Lane. Period,” thus ensuring she’d be the butt of every joke in the entire country for at least the next 24-48 hours.

However, as one might expect, it’s been reactionary forces within comics fandom itself who’ve been making the most hay out of all of this, and you can almost see the dollar signs flashing in the eyes of the grifters who’ve wormed their way to the top of the “comicsgate” food chain when they gesticulate wildly and foam at the mouth to the delight of their bigoted streaming audience while trotting out their collection of Jon Kent news clippings as “proof” that their bread-and-butter narrative about the “death” of the comic book industry is finally coming to pass. Their crowd-funded books might typically be months or even years late as a matter of course, but these guys’ sense of timing when it comes to stoking up their fan base is impeccable, and while I won’t sully this site by naming the disreputable cast of characters milking their YouTube hate cult for “superchat” cash on the back of this latest culture war flare-up — you know who they are anyway — I have to say that I did find it interesting that a recent addition to this rogues’ gallery is none other than one Gabe Eltaeb, who is the colorist on the very Superman : Son Of Kal-El comic that’s got them all so upset, and who appeared the night before last (as of this writing) on a “comicsgate” livestream where he shared his enlightened opinion that, now that Jon Kent has kissed a guy, man-on-dog sex was next.

Apparently our guy Gabe’s commitment to lunatic levels of bigotry only goes so far, though — I mean, lest we forget, he was happy enough to work on the very book he was bashing and cash the paycheck he got from DC for doing so. Still, when I mentioned in our previous installment that DC/Warner/AT&T were actually no friends of the LGBTQIA+ community, I had no idea that proof of precisely that could be found this close to the source. “Superman’s Coming-Out Comic Colored By Raging Homophobe” does not a good headline make for the very company hoping to ride a wave of headlines to a big payday with all of this. It’s bad enough that a number of LGBTQIA+ creators who have worked for DC feel that the publisher hasn’t done enough — if anything — to protect them from homophobic “fan” harassment, but this? Friends, this is some seriously “next-level” bullshit right here.

Dragging it back out to a more “macro” views of the situation, though, if one has the stamina to filter out all the “sky is falling” hyperbole that tends to issue forth from the conservative “culture warriors” who’ve adopted the posture of full-time victims for fun and profit, one finds that the same “talking points” tend to repeat themselves ad nauseum with regard to bi Superman, those being : they claim the whole thing is a publicity stunt, they say it’s not true to the origins of the character, and they insist that they just want politics — all politics — out of their Superman comics.

The “publicity stunt’ argument isn’t one I’m prepared to refute, simply because I actually happen to agree that’s what this is — but the fact that the “Make Comics Great Again” types are pointing it out is actually damning to them, and therefore deserves a bit more analysis and extrapolation, so I’ll save that for our third and final installment. The other two non-points they make, however — that this new development isn’t true to the origins of the character and that Superman should be apolitical — directly tie together, so we may as well tackle them both right now.

First off, there’s nothing inherently political about being bi. Or gay. Or transgender. Or straight. Or anything. As mentioned last time around in reference to the genocidal bloodbath for any and all non-Trumpers that the QAnon crowd salivates over, it’s obviously the case that the vast majority of LGBTQIA+ Americans are progressive politically, but not all of them are by any stretch — therefore, the idea that the very existence of a bisexual character is a political statement in and of itself simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. For all we know, Jon Kent could be a card-carrying member of the Smallville, Kansas Republican Party. His sexual orientation doesn’t preclude him from holding any set of political beliefs he chooses, and who we are we kidding? If the creators of this comic did make him a Republican, the same people shitting their Depends right now would be toasting Taylor and Timms with champagne for their “bravery” and “courage.” You, me, and the very people making the claim know damn well they don’t want “apolitical” comics — what they want are comics that don’t in any way run counter to their right-wing views.

Unfortunately for them, when it comes to Superman, that train left the station a long time ago. As the panels included with this post show, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster — the working class Jewish kids from Cleveland who created the character in the first place — gave him a very definite point of view, and had him battle on behalf of very politically-charged causes. In fact, the original Superman that these ostensible “traditionalists” want to see brought back would actually have them even more up in arms than his bisexual son does given that he was billed as a “champion of the oppressed” who fought such reality-based villains as slum landlords, prison wardens who treated their charges inhumanely, strike-breaking scabs, Wall Street bloodsuckers, Pinkerton mercenaries, trigger-happy cops, and other eminently relatable threats to the proletariat. The last son of Krypton, as originally conceived, was a “New Deal” Democrat all the way, as any fair and honest reading of the Siegel and Shuster stories proves. Hell, in Action Comics #1 he saved the life of a death row inmate and beat the crap out of a violent misogynist, so Superman was an “SJW’ from the word go.

Okay, sure, he wasn’t bisexual — but he couldn’t fly, didn’t have heat vision, and wasn’t vulnerable to Kryptonite, either. Those changes, among many others, came later — the biggest one being when he was changed into a flag-waving patriot after DC’s predecessor, National Periodical Publications, swindled ownership of the character out from underneath his creators just as they were shipping off to serve in WWII — and something tells me that the “we want our old Superman back” crowd wouldn’t be terribly eager to see any of them undone. But in the final analysis it’s rather immaterial, anyway — their “classic” Superman hasn’t gone anywhere, and they damn well know it. He’s still starring in two books (or more) of his own every month, is still married to Lois Lane, is still locked in a decades-long stalemate with Lex Luthor, all of it. You want old-school Superman? The Superman? Then just buy those other comics and not Superman : Son Of Kal-El. “Problem” solved.

A variation on the “originalist” argument that I’ve seen in tweets and facebook posts and the like here and there that’s also just as easily made mincemeat of is the one that acknowledges that it’s not Superman himself they’re changing by making him bi, but that they’re changing Jon Kent by making him bi, and they should simply leave him hetero. At first, that seems at least a bit more tethered to reality, but of course it isn’t : Jon Kent was created in 2015 and, up until now, had never expressed any kind of sexual or affectational orientation in any direction. He’s been a thoroughly chaste character, as was entirely appropriate for a kid his age — but, curiously for comics, he has been allowed to age, and now he’s at an age where, as the bumper sticker says, shit happens.

If that’s shit you can’t handle, okay, but honestly — that says more about you than it does about the character or the comic book. Jon Kent is growing the fuck up — isn’t it well past time for certain readers, politicians, and culture war grifters to do the same?

***************************************************************************************************************

Tomorrow we’ll put this baby to bed with part three of this series, but until then, if you actually enjoy reading this kind of stuff, please consider supporting me on Patreon, where I do this three times per week. https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Of Comic Books, Capitalism, And Culture War Crackpots, Or : What A Bisexual Superman Means — And What It Doesn’t, Part One Of Three

I’m loathe to start things off on a “housekeeping” note, but in this case I think it’s in order : when I re-tooled my approach to this site about a month back with an eye toward broadening out its scope beyond small press and self-published comics, I figured I might occasionally look in on what the “Big Two” were up to — but I honestly never imagined that, just a few weeks on from writing a multi-part series on Captain America By Ta-Nehisi Coates Vol. 1, I’d be embarking on yet another long-form essay/rant on the funnybook mainstream. And if you’d told the me of a month or so back that my second foray into critically less-familiar waters would be to talk about a comic that I had almost no intention of reading and certainly no intention of buying, I’d have asked for your dealer’s number because for 50-year-olds like yours truly, decent connections are damn tough to come by. Nevertheless, here we are, circumstances having swayed my hand, so there’s nothing else for it but to exclaim the customary “Once more into the breach!” and take it from there —

Superman might wear colorful tights and his underwear on the outside, but up until yesterday, the idea that he might be gay — or fall anywhere within the LGBTQIA+ spectrum — was pretty much a non-starter, culturally. Both Marvel and DC have featured secondary (or less) LGBTQIA+ characters in their publications for some years now, sure, but an “A-lister” like Superman? Any level of even perceived “gayness” seemed out of the question. Hell, if any top-ranking superhero in comics was ever going to be “outed” by editorial, Batman seems a far more likely choice given he displays any number of characteristics commensurate with the psychological profile of a non-hetero BDSM “top” who’s got some serious anger issues — after all, what other sort of person puts on leather fetish gear and heads into the rough part of town to beat the shit out of guys he barely even knows (or doesn’t even know at all) every night of the week without fail? If a billionaire were looking for justice (and that’s a mighty big “if”), there are literally a billion other — and smarter — ways to go about getting it. There’s just gotta be something else compelling Bruce Wayne to live the way he does — but alas, it doesn’t look like DC is ready to go there yet.

Still, they floated a little trial balloon of sorts earlier this year when one of his former sidekicks, Tim Drake, came out as bisexual — and not only did the sky not fall in, the “reveal” apparently put just enough wind in DC’s sales (whoops, sails — how cynical of me!) for them to aim their sights a bit higher. And so they have. But not as high as it may appear at first.

“BISEXUAL SUPERMAN!!!” the rage-click headlines scream — but are they true? The jury seems to be out on that, so let’s parse things a bit : yes, in next month’s Superman : Son Of Kal-El #5, Superman kisses a dude. But the very title of the book itself should clue even somebody mercifully separated from the comics world by considerable distance in to the fact that this isn’t the Superman, but rather a Superman —specifically, Clark Kent and Lois Lane’s “YA”-aged son, Jonathan. And while the writer of this particular mini-series, one Tom Taylor, is certainly saying all the right things in the barrage of attendant press pieces since the news broke just over 24 hours ago as of this writing, in point of fact I have yet to see him anywhere refer to young Mr. Kent as gay, bi, or anything of the sort. We know he has an ostensible love interest in the form of super-powered “hacktivist” Jay Nakamura — who, somewhat creepily perhaps, is a massive Lois Lane fan-boy — but beyond that, what we know is what we see in the artwork by John Timms shown above. Taylor’s most telling quote, to my mind, is that it would have been a “missed opportunity” to make this specific second-string Superman “another straight white male savior,” but that — like this kiss heard ’round the social media world — is a far more inferential statement than it is a definitive one. Okay, Jon kisses a guy. But you know who else has done that? Plenty of straight dudes.

Which isn’t me saying that DC is going to back away from the idea of a bi Superman — but it sure looks like they’re not exactly committed to it at this point, either. I’m reminded of Stan Lee’s rejection of Jack Kirby’s first character and costume designs for the Black Panther (who Kirby, in a characteristically bold move, modeled on the great Patrice Lumumba), which showed T’Challa’s full face, and even of Kirby’s second proposal which put a half-mask on him, in favor of a fully masked design that left Smilin’ Stan the option of revealing the character to be white at a later date. Again in this case, the publisher is hedging its bets — and the smart money bet for any readers out there is on DC having multiple story outlines ready to go as far as this whole relationship is concerned. Will they go for the gusto and let these two fall in love and find happiness together? Will they have Jon slowly back out of it? Will Jay tragically die just as things are getting good? Anything is possible — hell, they might even have Jon wake up the following issue and realize it was all just a dream.

Okay, talking of bets and all, my own marker (I do have house credit here, after all) isn’t on that latter option, but you never know. The point is, anything and everything is infinitely malleable in the forever-roiling cauldron of corporate comics continuity, so if you’re one of those folks who’s really excited about the idea of a bisexual Jon Kent, I would urge you not to get your hopes up too terribly high for the long run, no matter how positive things might appear in the near term. At the end of the day, we all know that sales are going to dictate whether or not this is a big(-ish) moment in comic book history, or a blip on the radar screen. For my own part, I definitely think it’s cool that a lot of readers — LGBTQIA+ or otherwise — are stoked about this simply because, while I’m admittedly a cishet old curmudgeonly white dude, I’m not so curmudgeonly that I don’t understand and appreciate why media representation matters to communities that have either gone unseen or, worse yet, been portrayed in mainly negative (or even nefarious) terms in the past. A hell of a lot of people were tweeting sentiments of the “I finally feel seen” variety yesterday, and I’m happy that they’re all happy. Sooooo — could there be a shittier place to insert a “but” than here ? Probably not. But

The follow-up question that never gets asked in these discussions on representation is “what are you seen as?,” and in this case it seems to me that the uncomfortable answer to that, any way you slice it, is “a license to print money.” I’m not saying this is the attitude of this particular comic’s creators toward the LGBTQIA+ community (although it might be worth pointing out that said creators are apparently all straight, which one could argue is somewhat tone-deaf on its face), and it may not even be the attitude of DC editorial, but their corporate paymasters? You’d have to be naive to believe they see them as anything else. If the higher-ups at DC’s parent company, Warners — or their parent company, AT&T — thought there wasn’t cold, hard cash to be made here, they’d have put the kibosh on this happy bit of inclusivity already. Predatory multi-national media conglomerates are not “friends” or “allies” of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender people — and I can say that with full confidence because they’re not “friends” or “allies” of most straight people, either. How quickly everyone seems to have forgotten, for instance, that it was revealed just last week that AT&T is responsible for nearly 100% of the funding for noxious far-right “news” outlet OAN, a neo-fascist platform that is loaded to the gills with “stolen election” conspiracy BS and QAnon lunacy — and in case you weren’t aware, the over-riding core belief of the QAnon crowd is that sooner or later a genocidal event called “The Storm” is coming that will see anyone and everyone opposed to Donald Trump rounded up, sent to Gitmo, brutally tortured, and summarily executed without trial. Think that “enemies list” might include some LGBTQIA+ folks? Like, I dunno, maybe a good 80-90% of them?

The political and “culture war” aspects of this “Superman Is (Maybe) Bi” phenomenon are something I’ll delve into more fully in tomorrow’s segment of this series, but for now I think it behooves everyone to remember that AT&T pays for this QAnon shit to be pumped out into the body politic via OAN, and QAnon wants to see the overwhelming majority of LGBTQIA+ Americans tortured and killed. Want to support Jon Kent’s coming out by purchasing the comic featuring his first same-sex kiss? Okay, feel free — but keep in mind where that money is going as it makes its way up the corporate food chain. All is not lost, though, I promise — in fact, I’ll have far cheerier things to say in our next installment. Sort of. It’s complicated.

The Good Guys Get No Respect : Bryce Martin’s “The Onaut”

Any way you slice it, saving the world has got to be a raw deal. I mean, let’s say you’ve got super-powers and can do that sort of thing — is there really any way you’re ever gonna get the thanks you deserve?

The Ditko-esque figure of the brave hero who saves a person/city/planet only to silently watch, powerless, as his own life either gets no better or in some way becomes appreciably worse is, of course, a shop-worn trope by now, but it remains an alluring one for cartoonists to deploy. I mean, pathos doesn’t get much simpler or more unsubtle — or more effective. Consider the ultimate example, Spider-Man : after Ditko’s departure, when the character of Peter Parker became a much more standard-issue “good guy” who saved the day, got the girls, and exuded so much confidence it was tempting to think he’d forgotten all about his arrogance leading to the death of poor old Uncle Ben, were things ever as interesting? Short answer : of course not. Even people who grew up on the “Flash Thompson in a lab coat” iteration of the character that persists to this day (hell, Parker and Thompson even became friends) are generally blown away when they read those early-days Spidey adventures of a hero who risks it all and generally gets nothing in return.

Fast-forward to the present and we find Bryce Martin, one of the more interesting voices in contemporary cartooning to emerge in the last couple of years, still mining the “tragic hero” figure for all it’s worth in the pages of his new comic The Onaut, but doing so in his own way, which is to say : this is as much Ultraman as it is Spider-Man, featuring as it does a protagonist far more likely to tussle with Kaiju than with the Kingpin. The Ditko parallels are obvious enough that the publishers — our friends at Strangers — even point it out in their promotional blurb for the book, but they’re not so obvious that the encumber Martin from delivering his story in his own authentic voice.

Which isn’t to say that there’s not a fairly noticeable Brandon Graham vibe to Martin’s cartooning — particularly when it’s in service of a fairly straightforward narrative as it is here — but there’s a lot more personality, in my view, that comes to the fore in Martin’s comics, this one included, than there is in Graham’s sometimes too-polished-for-its-own-good work. Don’t take that to mean this is “rough around the edges,” though — rather, it’s fluid, occasionally amorphous, with figures and backgrounds coalescing into new and intriguing shapes and forms and ideas in pursuit of what is still, at the end of the day, a fairly traditional super-hero yarn, albeit one with many of the usual sub rosa thematic tributaries bumped right up to the foreground and dialed up to 11. In his afterword, Martin says that he never actually thought he’d do a super-hero story, but given how clearly fluent he is in the genre’s psychopathologies, I’m honestly wondering why he didn’t do one a lot sooner — and also hoping he’ll do another one again at some point.

For now, though, there’s plenty to enjoy — as well as unpack — with regard to the one he’s just made. One of the things I always find fascinating in Martin’s comics is the nature of the environs in which they take place, and the “City Of Causion” here is no exception : culturally it appears to be a high-tech melting pot, but whether or not it’s utopian or dystopian in its conception and execution is very much an open question — we know the people there seem to be a bit self-absorbed and dismissive of their ostensible protector, but he’s so self-absorbed in turn himself (not to mention whiny) that you really can’t blame them. Nobody likes folks who are constantly polishing their own “good guy badges” for all to see, but the fact that our guy Onaut would appear to have genuinely earned his makes the situation more complicated : he can’t be written off as a garden-variety braggart embellishing modest accomplishments up to gargantuan dimensions (“you wouldn’t believe the size of the fish I caught!” — no, asshole, I wouldn’t), but at the same time there’s something inherently pathetic about a guy who can do just about anything needing to beg for affirmation from the very people he feels superior to. There’s narcissism at play here, sure, but also infantilism, and both are positively Trumpian in their proportions.

In a delicious twist, however, it turns out that ultimate architect of Onaut’s troubles may be the “hero” himself, specifically his lack of intellectual curiosity and general over-confidence. I’ll say no more for fear of depriving you the pleasure of coming to the work with a reasonably fresh set of eyes — I try to be one of those critics who informs a prospective reader’s expectations without over-informing on the details, but hey, maybe that’s just me being overly boastful myself —but I will say that even readers completely burned out on irony (hell, isn’t that everyone?) will at least find this an effective utilization of it.

I guess if I can point to any “beef” I would have with this comic, it’s in the fact that it’s more self-consciously clever than Martin’s more purely experimental minis, but that’s not a bad thing in and of itself — in fact, I find it rather interesting that a cartoonist best known for really idiosyncratic stuff is trying his hand at something more accessible here. And given that he appears to now be working on a long-form “graphic novel,” perhaps a project like this allowed him to “cut his teeth,” so to speak, in the world of traditional narrative on his way to a more ambitious project with an even greater scope. I hope he hasn’t left more interpretive, non-narrative work behind entirely, but hey — if he has, then at least he can move on secure in the knowledge that he made some damn fine weird-ass comics.

And, honestly, if weirdness is your bag, there’s still a hell of a lot of it here. As well as just fun, cool, imaginative visual storytelling. Rodney Dangerfield in tights and a cape might make for a good “elevator pitch” if we’re looking to break this down to its fundamentals, but of course there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. Besides, too may people who complain about lack of respect tend to forget that it has to be earned — rest assured that Bryce Martin has certainly earned mine and will more than likely earn yours, as well.

***************************************************************************************************************

The Onaut is available for $8.00 from the Strangers website at https://strangersfanzine.bigcartel.com/product/the-onaut-by-bryce-martin

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Deep In The Heart Of “Texas Tracts”

There’s no polite way to say this, and perhaps as an outsider I’m not even terribly qualified to opine on the matter anyway, but rest assured the following sentiment is shared by millions : the state of Texas appears to be a very troubled — and, in many respects, troubling — place.

I say this fully cognizant of the fact that my own home state of Minnesota has come in for its fair share of negative headlines over the past year-plus, but when a “perfect storm” of lax safety and building regulations, a laughably substandard power grid, and hollowed-out social services budgets did more damage to the people of the Lone Star State than the natural storm that literally hit it earlier this year did, the rest of the nation — and even the rest of the world — became acutely aware of the reality that something was seriously amiss down there. And rather than addressing these life-or-death matters, the state’s “leaders” — at least those who didn’t flee to Cancun and subsequently try to blame their cowardice on their kids — chose instead to tackle the apparently-more-pressing concerns of making sure Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech is no longer a required part of their schools’ history curriculum (you can still talk about the KKK in class, though! You just can’t say they’re wrong) and placing bounties on women who get abortions. And while there’s no question that many Texans are as appalled by all this dark-ages BS as people from other places are, if not even moreso, their chance to do anything about it is rapidly slipping away thanks to the state’s new “Jim Crow 2.0” voting restrictions, which are manifestly designed to make it more difficult for anyone who isn’t a white conservative Republican to cast a ballot — while on the other side of the coin, the white conservative Republican governor who’s been gleefully signing all this nonsense into law is being challenged by others within his own party who actually believe he’s not crazy enough. You literally can’t make this shit up, and in an act of what I can only surmise to be some kind of sadistic “piling on” or “kicking a state when it’s down,” Joe Rogan recently moved there, as well . And yet —

There is, for reasons I’ll never be able to fathom personally, a mystique about Texas that endures no matter how dire the situation on the ground might be. Locals have an indefatigable sense of home-state pride that no place else can match. “Don’t mess with Texas” (as if the place isn’t doing a perfectly fine job messing up itself without the need for extra assistance) isn’t just a hollow slogan, it’s something most Texans seem to firmly believe right down to the core of their being. And I do hear the barbecue down there is second to none, even though places like Kansas City and Memphis might disagree. Hell, I’m tempted to say that Texas has a je ne sais quoi all its own — but I’m worried the nearest Texan might string me from a tree for speaking French.

Certainly there have been too many terrific cartoonists from Texas to even count at this point — Mack White, Michael Dougan, Jack Jackson, and Roy Tompkins being among this author’s favorites — but it’s worth noting that a good number of folks who went on to more firmly establish their comics careers elsewhere got their start there, as well. People like Jim Osborne. Berkeley Breathed. Chris Ware. And the subject of our review here today, Rachelle Meyer.

Hell, I’m almost tempted to say Meyer didn’t really leave Texas at all, even though she decamped for the more rational (and probably altogether more pleasant) climes of Amsterdam some years ago. Her cartooning is still Texan to the core, and she looks back on her upbringing there with a kind of fondness that, while complicated, is obviously entirely genuine. I gave a glowing review to her first mini, Holy Diver, a few months back here, but now I’m pleased to say she’s fleshed out her uniquely Texan childhood memoirs into an honest-to-goodness trilogy that she calls, rightly enough, Texas Tracts.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see all of these in PDF form, and suffice to say her gently humorous overall and eternally curious demeanor comes to the fore throughout — growing up Catholic in a state where there aren’t too many of them certainly wasn’t the easiest thing in the world, to be sure (hell, growing up Catholic anywhere is kinda tricky), but she doesn’t seem either troubled by or burdened with her early-years religious indoctrination so much as she’s bemused, in retrospect, by its foibles. No comparisons to, say, Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary are forthcoming here, then, but that’s just as well : it’s pretty tough for any cartoonist, particularly an autobio cartoonist, to measure up to Justin Green’s all-time masterwork. Instead, with her two new Chick tract-formatted minis (hey, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t “J.T.C.” from Texas himself?), Joy Ride and Rainbow Collie, Meyer seeks to further establish her own tone, tenor, and tempo within the admittedly crowded autobio field, and she certainly manages to do just that with a noteworthy degree of aplomb.

Also to her credit, Meyer eschews a strictly chronological “running order” for her trilogy in favor of an emotive and indeed intuitive one, trusting her own artistic sensibilities to square the circle of her life in a more interesting and, counter-intuitive as it may sound, accurate way then presenting her triptych of stories in strictly linear fashion could. It’s an interesting and bold choice, one that she’s committed to sinking or swimming with simply by dint of having made it, and it works wonderfully, a real sense of something akin — but not necessarily identical — to the largely-illusory ideal of “closure” being achieved by Rainbow Collie‘s final page.

Admittedly, of the three comics I think Holy Diver remains the strongest and most poignant, but it’s not as if the two new “chapters” are in any way a “letdown” per se — they’re very much “of a piece” with the first, they just didn’t quite connect with me as directly for the simple reason that I was blowing off my Catholic school instructors in my mind from a pretty early age, opting for a kind of “silent atheism” while playing along with the game for the sake of appearances. For Meyer, obviously, she bought into it all to one degree or another for a time, and has learned to process it in a way that I think most people would consider reasonably healthy : it was what it was, but I gotta be me regardless.

As for the cartooning in these three comics, it’s uniformly exemplary : Meyer is a modern master of shading and wash effects, her figure drawing is equal parts singular and fundamentally sound, and her style is versatile enough to encompass the heavier and more somber aspects of the story in Joy Ride as well as the (sorry to invoke the term, but) “feel-good” and self-affirming tone of Rainbow Collie. She’s got talent the size of Texas in her, of that there is absolutely no doubt.

Here, then, is another cultural export the Lone Star State can be proud of. Meyer left her home behind, but it didn’t leave her, and while there’s no syrupy homesick wistfulness to be found in the pages of these comics, it seems clear that she harbors at the very least an appreciation for her Texas roots that is absolutely sincere, even if it’s understandably tempered by the wisdom of age and worldly experience. I don’t get a sense she’d ever want to do something as drastic as move back there or anything, but that doesn’t mean she’s not proud to call it home. So, hey, don’t mess with Texans — especially the ones in Amsterdam.

***************************************************************************************************************

All three Texas Tracts comics, plus some damn cool-looking premiums, are available by backing Rachelle Meyer’s Kickstarter campaign at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/therewise/texas-tracts

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

More Of The Same, But Different : Gerald Jablonski’s “Cryptic Wit” #4

For a guy who prides himself on being “in the know” about all things small press and self-published, sometimes it’s downright frightening to discover how much can still pass by my notice. I mean, I’m not arrogant enough to assume that everyone making anything worthwhile automatically knows they should send their wares in my direction, but most days my mailbox is full enough that it certainly feels as if that might be the case.

That being said, it’s still inarguably true that a cartoonist has to be “plugged in” to a certain degree to even know who the fuck I am in the first place, and one of the best things about Gerald Jablonski’s comics is how utterly divorced they are not just from the current state of the comics “scene” but from any and all forms of convention in a general sense. The overly-dense page layouts, the way overly-dense dialogue, the astonishingly repetitious themes, the downright labyrinthine word balloon tails, the go-nowhere “plots” — there’s nothing in a Jablonski strip that makes any allowances. And I don’t just mean allowances for the “rules of the game,” so to speak, but for readers themselves. You meet this stuff entirely on its own terms, or you head for the exits. I don’t think Jablonski himself is bothered much either way.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise after all, then, that a new issue of Jablonski’s Cryptic Wit — #4 for those keeping track at home — came out at some point last year as an IndyPlanet print-on-demand job to little notice and even less fanfare, but there’s something that’s just plain wrong about that : I mean, these are the most dizzyingly uncompromising comics around. The plain fact that they’re the funniest, as well, is just icing on the cake.

Who knows? Maybe Jablonski gets all his self-promoting out of his system by means of the never-shy-about-proclaiming-his-own-greatness Farmer Ned? And while we’re on that subject, I suppose he’s as good a place as any to start analyzing what makes this particular issue different from those that have come before it. I mean, I wouldn’t say Ned has “toned down” his boastfulness by any stretch, but it is truncated — and so are a good many of these strips. Relatively speaking, of course.

Whether due to physical necessity, artistic whim, or some of both, a fair number of the “stories” in this “new” issue — which appears to collect several year’s worth of material — are tighter, while the art and lettering appear more loose. In sheer qualitative terms, this is no big deal either way — this shit’s still as great as ever — but you can probably get through this issue in four hours rather than six, and a handful of the strips herein consist of “only” 12 panels rather than the customary 25-30. They don’t read as being anything other than the length they’re designed to be — Jablonski’s comics owe precisely nothing to traditional definitions of “pacing,” anyway — but I think this marks an intriguing change to largely static and hermetically-sealed “universe.” Things, however, get weirder still as they go on —

Farmer Ned becoming a beer spokesman and then leaving the barnyard to try his hand as a big city private eye? The vaguely Reagan-looking “kid” having solo “adventures” without the vaguely Ford-looking “kid”? A silent strip about some rats attacking a kitchen and being confronted by a ghost? Strips with none of those trademark word balloon tails? The Howdy, Dee Dee, and Dee Dee’s silent friend stuff is essentially unchanged, but even there, the silent friends seems, if anything, even more surplus to requirements than usual — but then, as “strange” as this all may seem to veteran Jablonski readers, it’s not like we can really pretend these comics weren’t infinitely strange to begin with.

Hell, I’d go so far as to say that’s why we love this stuff — precisely because none of it should work, but within the confines of its own self-generated “bubble,” all of it invariably does. Comparing Jablonski to other cartoonists is pointless. Comparing him to other artists in any medium is pointless. And while the “little variations” from one strip to another are seismic shifts worthy of no end of analysis, discussion, and speculation among the Jablonski faithful, at the end of the day the only answer we have to or for any of them is “guess he felt like doing it that way.” And really — anything over, above, and beyond that is wholly unnecessary.

“It is the way it is because that’s how it is” may seem like the ultimate intellectual cop-out, I admit, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. And Gerald Jablonski is still more true to himself and his vision than anybody else working in this medium. There are more accomplished comics than his. There are more intelligent comics than his. There are more influential comics than his. There aren’t more honest, more personal, more fully-realized comics than his — and there really aren’t any better ones, either.

***************************************************************************************************************

Cryptic Wit #4 is available for $9.50 from the IndyPlanet website at https://indyplanet.com/cryptic-wit-4

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

The Cosmic Cosmology Of Need : Corinne Halbert’s “Acid Nun” #2

Corinne Halbert’s work is the sort of stuff that lends itself well to deep and thoughtful metatextual analyses that will or would, I’m fully confident, place it firmly within the now-chic, if ill-defined, body of “sex positive” art, embodying as it does an ethos that not only responds to, but frankly obliterates, such contemporary (and, really, timeless) villains like patriarchy, kink-shaming, modesty, repression, and other shit most people of discernment are bored with. Throw in some noble pro-drug — specifically pro-psychedelic — sentiments, and there’s really no doubt about it : Halbert follows in the rich tradition of those who both preach and practice William Blake’s famous axiom “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

And so it is that I truly hope a dedicated, skilled, and analytical writer will take it upon themselves to situate Halbert’s entire ouevre within a much broader continuum of like-minded aesthetic statements, because it frankly it deserves as much. Ya know what, though? It ain’t gonna be me. Not necessarily because I’m too lazy — although there is that — but because I think such a treatise, necessary as it may be, would actually sell her art short.

Consider her latest self-published mini, Acid Nun #2 — sure, it plays around in the same sandbox as the first issue, which I reviewed in rather glowing terms on this very site, but despite little by way of what would traditionally be termed “plot progression” (Elinore and Baphomet enlist the services of a tarot card reader to help divine the whereabouts of Annie, our ostensible heroine), the breadth and depth of Halbert’s thematic and philosophical explorations nevertheless multiply themselves exponentially here, the comic’s “Forgive Urself” title page not just marrying a shop-worn piece of pop-psychology advice with one of the artist’s trademark arresting images, but in fact serving as the raison d’etre of the project (or at least this installment of it) in a more universal sense. Which brings me back to Blake —

At the risk of sounding pretentious as shit (okay, fair enough, too late), it’s my firm contention that Halbert is a latter-day “ecstatic visionary” herself, and one who shares many of Blake’s obsessions vis a vis the cosmic and eternal, although no one would argue that her methodology of exploring them — and subsequently expressing the essential character of those explorations — is anything other than entirely her own. Now watch and learn at home, kids, because segues get no clumsier than this —

Suicide hangs over this book like a fucking Sword of Damocles. Not just concretely, either — we’re talking conceptually, fundamentally, ethereally. It’s baked into the metaphorical DNA of the entire thing. Halbert takes great pains — emphasis, probably, on the pain — to explain why this is in a text piece that sure as shit can’t have been easy to write, but be forewarned that it’s also not the easiest thing to read, either. Still, the broader subject of self-harm is in no way incongruous with other themes present in this comic (hell, in all of Halbert’s comics) — I mean, sure, the sex and the chemically-induced altered states of consciousness she depicts are vibrant, colorful, phantasmagoric, and yes, ecstatic, but who are we kidding? That doesn’t always mean they’re fun.

Any key to self-discovery can, with just a slight twist the other way, be a key to self-destruction, and in this comic in particular Halbert treads that very fine line with care, precision, and even a certain amount of compassion. So often things can go in either direction when we’re talking about acts of intimate expression, and there’s a real need at the beating heart of this work to, if you’ll forgive the cliche, “leave it all out there on the page” — a need that makes for a reading experience that’s as harrowing, difficult, and challenging as it is ultimately rewarding. I’d be committing critical malpractice not to mention the terrific pin-up art contributions of Alex Graham, Hyena Hell, and Matthew Allison to the overall tone and tenor of these proceedings, but in the end this is Halbert’s show all the way, and everything she has in her is coming out. Tyger, tyger, you’re burning bright.

***************************************************************************************************************

Acid Nun #2 is available for $10.00 from Corinne Halbert’s Bigcartel site at https://corinnehalbert.bigcartel.com/product/acid-nun-no-2

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the world of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a loo by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

A Tribe Of One : Jim Blanchard’s “Primitiva”

Running a gamut of garishness and ghoulishness from the grotesque to the giddy, it’s tempting to say that Jim Blanchard’s splendidly-produced mini Primitiva (Noreah/Brownfield, 2019) is something of a “sampler” of the artist’s wares — and while there’s no denying that it is, there’s also more to it than that. And while it’s admittedly not the long-form showcase afforded to the artist by Fantagraphics in books such as Visual Abuse or Meat Warp, that’s not necessarily a strike against it : in fact, the selection of acrylic and ink drawings herein seems hand-selected for its ability to really jump off these slick, glossy, high-production-value pages, which means the aesthetic focus here is —at least somewhat tight?

I realize full well that the beginning and ending of the preceding paragraph contradict each other, but let’s just go with it all the same, because deliriously contradictory (even self-contradictory) imagery has been a Blanchard staple going back as far as I can remember. Here’s a guy who’s known for some of the most intensely-rendered portraiture around, but who also delights in serving up dark hallucinogenic hellscapes that that bear all the hallmarks of chemically-induced acts of self-exorcism — so while his muses may be many and varied, his absolute commitment to delineating them with meticulous, even obessive, care is tenacious bordering on the flat-out unwavering.

I suppose that’s why his stuff is well and truly timeless — and that’s not polite-speak for “it ages well.” It’s a literal description. His art seems to both come from and situate itself entirely outside of the space-time continuum as our admittedly feeble brains understand it, but this publication is no simple trip into tripped-out territory. Rather, the seemingly random assemblage of primitive (hence, I would assume, the name) tribal designs, electro-psychedelia, insectoid imagery, homicidal cartoon kids, “good girl” pin-up art (including some Bettie Page stuff), Satanic symbolism and, for lack of a better term, “skulls and shit,” rhythmically beats a tattoo into your optic nerve that bypasses rational analysis entirely and forces you to confront it on its home turf — the subconscious. Sounds kinda far out, huh?

And so it is — but it’s considerably farther out than most art that bills itself as such. Certainly commercial considerations don’t even enter into the equation here, as Blanchard’s “intended audience” would appear to be nobody other than whoever the fuck digs this sort of thing, and that can shift from page to page, drawing to drawing, given that there aren’t fixed point of aesthetic reference here so much as there are recurring themes and/or obsessions that make their presence felt by dint of repetition only to surrender “center stage” again as quickly as they found themselves thrust upon it. Think of this, then, as a “grab bag” that grabs back.

In that respect, it’s not difficult to see how, back in the sub-halycon days of the 1990s, Blanchard’s work routinely was presented/ended up in the kinds of ‘zines where you’d also find stuff by the likes of Nick Bougas, Tom Crites, Trevor Brown, and Molly Kiely (among others), but it’s probably worth remembering that he enjoyed (hopefully that’s the right term) a lengthy stint as Peter Bagge’s inker on Hate, as well. So while his field of vision, so to speak, is both broad and broadly bizarre, he’s got the chops to make it all entirely accessible to even fans of mainstream (or at least mainstream-adjacent) cartooning. Skill is skill, there’s no denying that, and on a purely functionary level, Blanchard’s skills are an undeniable as they come.

All of which is to say, if you’re a “newbie” to this artist’s work (welcome to the club, we’re glad to have you), there’s nothing in this little ‘zine that’s gonna freak you out too much — unless you’ve got a phobia about bugs, boobs, or ol’ Beelzebub, I suppose. And yet this isn’t “Blanchard-lite,” by any stretch, either. Much of this imagery is disquieting, unsettling, maybe even heretical — but often for reasons you can’t quite put a finger on. These drawings will worm their way into the back of your brain, burrow a nice comfy hole for themselves there, and take up as much mental real estate as you allow them over time. Like guests who came to visit and decided to stay, you’ll get used to their presence for good or ill, and while life would be a calmer and easier place without them, it would also be considerably more dull.

***************************************************************************************************************

Primitiva is available for $12.50 directly from the publisher at https://noreahbrownfield.com/product/primitiva-by-jim-blanchard/?fbclid=IwAR2X3jx_44ko-VUgGdUrW_WMKAWeJy8I_UsnWtFzM8WVqG5807KWXu3WjXo

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“Please, God – Help Me Be Normal!” Will Make You Glad John Trubee Is Anything But

A lot of great art, regardless of medium, comes from a place of deep personal anguish. It only stands to reason, of course — profoundly disturbing imagery, writing, films, etc. are most authentically communicated by profoundly disturbed minds. But does that mean the artist in question can’t be having a good time making it, and that you as a reader or viewer can’t have fun experiencing it?

I ask this because, as the contents of the long-overdue career retrospective Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! (Mucus House Publications, 2021) make abundantly clear, something is up with John Trubee. the very title of his book is a cry for help, and it’s tough to blame the guy for having a constant urge to scream into the abyss. I mean, he sees things in a way that most of us simply don’t — hell, maybe he just sees things that most of simply don’t, period — but here’s where things get interesting : his art, while rendered with downright maniacal intensity, nevertheless exudes a kind of irreverence that in a push might be called tongue-in-cheek. The only thing is, of course, some of these freaks and geeks that he likes to draw probably have three or four tongues, maybe even more.

Which isn’t to say that his so-called “ugly men” drawings don’t both depict and speak to (or should that be for?) the — well, the ugly side of the collectivized human subconscious. Specifically, the male human subconscious. Many of the rant-style captions that accompany these deliriously grotesque de facto portraits are every bit as fucked up as the mutated monstrosities they depict, reveling in misanthropy, misogyny, licentiousness, and nihilism. Think of some bastard offspring of Rory Hayes and the most “black-pilled” adherents of “incel” subculture and you won’t be too far off the mark. And yet this stuff is so uniformly over the top and beyond the pale that if Trubee were to dial down its full frontal assault on both your visual cortex and your conscience it would ring false, hollow — even chickenshit. Trubee doesn’t “ramp things up to 11,” as the saying goes, he starts off there and pretty much dares you to keep up.

Which leads the rational, reasonable person to conclude that this stuff is in no way, shape, or form going to be universally appealing. And it’s likely to be those same “rational, reasonable” people who take greatest exception to the going-on in these pages. Fair enough. But this is no mere exercise in regurgitating the flotsam and jetsam of Trubee’s id, much less some droll display of “shock value” imagery with no intent behind it other than to raise the hackles of squares. I hesitate to pin Trubee down to having anything so pedestrian as an agenda, but his inherently confrontational artistic philosophy ensures that his work fits comfortably along a continuum of latter-day aesthetic terrorists ranging from Jim Osborne to Joe Coleman to S. Clay Wilson to Tom Crites to Mike Diana to Trevor Brown to the aforementioned Mr. Hayes. And yet —

At the risk of repeating myself (whoops, too late), this shit is so far off on its own wavelength that it’s often hard to tell how seriously Trubee himself is taking it all. Certainly he’s dead serious about his craft — the amount of time that goes into his cross-hatching alone would break the resolve of many an artist — but beyond that he never makes it clear whether or not he’s actively promulgating for, or just engaging in an extended “piss-take” on, what’s generally referred to as the “dudebro” mindset. Hell, he could very well be doing both, but what makes this volume (which functions as a “best-of” or “greatest hits” compendium going back decades) such a conceptually challenging one is that he never reveals the cards he’s holding in too obvious a fashion — nor, frankly, should he. If there’s one kind of art I hope we’re all bored to death with, it’s art that tells you what to think of as a precursor for telling you how to think in a more general, all-encompassing sense. Trubee lets his work speak for itself and leaves any tonal interpretation up to each individual reader/viewer to limn out for themselves.

Well, sort of. Truth be told, the essay by Trubee himself and the interview with the artist conducted by Barry Alfonso rather give the game away in certain respects, so while they’re enthralling reads that come highly recommended, it might behoove you to save ’em for after you’ve made your way through the drawings, simply because I think the impact of these images is, in my estimation at any rate, that much more acute if viewed through a lens of ambiguous amorality. The mere fact that Trubee’s been at this for as long as he has is a statement of intent by default in and of itself, it’s true, but it’s worth remembering that even the most profoundly cynical person is capable of communicating their outlook with a wink and a nod toward its (and, by extension, their) own absurdity. All I can say safely say with absolute certainty — and without tipping the scales much in either direction — is that what we’ve got here are a bunch of fucking insane illustrations of “party monster” types, with equal emphasis on both the party and the monster. I dug it — hell, I dug it a lot — but then, I always kinda wondered what would happen if the Garbage Pail Kids grew up, ingested a shit-ton of PCP, and started listening to Joe Rogan.

***************************************************************************************************************

Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! is available for $24.95 from (try to quell your surprise here) Jim Blanchard’s Bigcartel site at https://jimblanchard.bigcartel.com/product/please-god-help-me-be-normal-art-book

Also, I’ve done a piss-poor job of promoting my Patreon lately, but don’t take that to mean my content on there hasn’t been damn good, even if I do say so myself. If you’re looking for three more servings of my cultural and pop cultural musings every week, this is the place to go is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse