Everyday Mysticism : David Tea’s “Five Perennial Virutes” #2

Several years ago, Minneapolis-based cartoonist David Tea worked at the comic shop nearest my home, where I am something of a “regular,” and to the best of my knowledge that was the only place that he sold his beyond-lo-fi comics, neatly stacked at the counter, each of them looking like they were run off a printer at Kinko’s, then cut and stapled by hand — which I’m fairly sure is exactly how they were made. Then, one day, he wasn’t working there anymore, and how one was supposed to obtain these utterly baffling little ‘zines became as mysterious a proposition as their contents, given that the only “distribution network” Tea seemed to employ was hustling them in person.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw that an apparently-randomly-selected work from Tea’s oeuvre, the 2005-produced Five Perennial Virtues #2, had been reprinted in the here and now of 2018, and made available for purchase through Austin English’s Domino Books website. Furthermore, this is no “ordinary” re-issue — our guy Dave has padded things out by including another older story, “Raking Leaves” (originally released as a stand-alone mini), as well as some new material. I subsequently discovered that Mr. Tea (sorry, I couldn’t resist) also has a smattering of more recent comics for sale on Amazon as Kindle downloads (or whatever the term is), but that’s another matter for another time. Suffice to say, Dave is branching out, or at least trying to, and it’s long overdue, because people outside the Twin Cities deserve access to this guy’s absolutely singular creative output, as well.

As regards Five Perennial Virtues #2 in particular, what the hell — it’s as good an introduction to “The World According To Tea” as anything, but be warned : these comics don’t just eschew the principles of what makes for “good” cartooning, they very much appear to the the product of someone who either doesn’t know what those principle are, or simply doesn’t give a flying fuck about them. In other words, this is awesome work, in the truest, dictionary-definition sense of the term. All I can do is try my best to prepare you for it.

Dave begins his day by walking the streets of Dinkytown, the neighborhood centered around the University of Minnesota campus (which is now nothing like it’s pictured here and has been homogenized into a disgusting edifice of hyper-capitalism, all chain businesses and overpriced high-rise rental housing), looking around intently for lost/discarded pennies as he makes his way to his favorite coffee shop to meet a “friend.” Along the way, he gives us a lecture/harangue on the history and metallic composition of pennies, finds a five dollar bill (considerably more than he was bargaining for), goes off on a tangent about people growing lawns on their roofs, and warns us about his pal’s sour temperament before we meet — uhhmmm — “him.”

I put that last word in quotation marks because his coffee shop “date” is, in fact, a plant — one with whom he communicates by means of “mental telepathy.” Their “conversation” is short, though, because Dave has to go help his elderly neighbor — lay out a lawn on her roof. This shit is positively getting circular at this point. His cousin helps him out because he’s got a truck and can haul the turf over there from the gardening store, and after the job is complete, neighbor lady pays them in root beer. If this all sounds inexplicable enough (which it is), rest assured that it actually plays out in even weirder fashion, since Tea has a habit of “pausing” in the midst of his threadbare “narrative” to regale us with double-page spreads that seem to have only the most tangential (if any) relation to the proceedings, and often appear to have backgrounds cobbled together from old-school “clip art” catalogues, all diagonal lines/bars and simple diagrammatic designs. The reasons for this are known only to the cartoonist himself — but the same is probably true of everything else on offer here, so it really does all seem of a piece, even if it doesn’t exactly flow.

This conceit reaches its dizzying apotheosis in “Raking Leaves,” wherein Tea heads out to his backyard to perform the titular task, only to have the “story” just plain stop and be replaced by painstakingly-rendered illustrations of various leaves superimposed over one of those “clip art” patterns I was just droning on about. This really only works in this “bumper volume” presentation because the first two strips (the one detailed previously as well as a brand new one, which features a visibly older and more haggard Tea conversing at a bar with the unusual symbol that you can see in the upper-left portion of the cover shown at the top of this review) pretty well prepare you for just about anything, but folks who bought the story in its original “single-issue” iteration probably still wonder both what they forked over their cash for and, crucially, why.

But you know what? Tea doesn’t owe them — or you, or me — a damn thing. This is a guy who seems to be making comics maybe not so much for an audience of one, but for an audience of whoever. He commits this stuff to paper (and draws it pretty well, it must be said) for the most un-pretentious, dare I say noble, reason of all : simply because it’s in his head and he wants to get it out there. If somebody else is interested enough to check it out, fair enough, but if not, that doesn’t seem to bother him, either. His part in the process is done with its creation, and what anybody makes of it is on them.

For my part, I found a lot of unassuming, dare I say it, magic hiding in plain sight in Five Perennial Virtues #2, and Tea’s deadpan-but-askew look at the smallest aspects of daily life has gone some way toward convincing me that, despite what most probably say and believe, there is still a potentially- limitless amount of wonder to be mined from even the most mundane aspects of existence. If you think that you’re ready and willing to experience reality through the eyes of somebody who isn’t jaded by ideas of what comics should or shouldn’t do or be, who simply does things the way he wants to do them because it never occurred to him to do them any other way, then I highly recommend you get a five dollar bill out of your wallet (or, better yet, find one laying around on the sidewalk) and send it to http://dominobooks.org/fivevirtues.html

 

There’s Something Happening Here — What It Is Ain’t Exactly Clear : Austin English’s “The Enemy From Within”

Some comics really make you work.

Not as hard as the cartoonist who made them, of course — and Austin English busted his tail (and his hands, and probably even his brain) on his latest solo book, The Enemy From Within, published in late 2017 by Sonatina Comics. The sheer effort that went into the creation of the thematically-linked triptych of stories (the titular “The Enemy From Within, ” “Half-Hearted Slogan Dance,” and “Solo Dance #2”) is apparent on all 22 of these intricately-detailed, insanely imaginative pages. English uses every last millimeter of space available to him, his images densely packed from corner to corner, side to side, negative space a luxury he can seldom afford. He’s clearly got a lot to say — but what is it?

I’ll be honest — four times through this book, I’m still trying to figure that out. But I think that’s the point : English has always been about as visually ambitious as anyone around, his modern art sensibilities on full few (hello Picasso, and all that), but he’s veered completely into dada-ist territory with this one, so it’s a safe bet that the work will have as many different interpretations as it does readers. What it means to me, then, may be something entirely different than what it means to you — and that’s assuming it means anything to you at all, which it very well may not.

And you know what? That’s okay, too — you’ll at least walk away from it with an exhausted mind and even more exhausted eyeballs, since there’s literally no way to casually glance at this. You’ll be drawn in immediately, even if what it is you’re drawn into can’t be fully comprehended, much less described with mere words after you’ve put it down. All of which is my roundabout way of saying “look, folks, I’m doing my best here — and even that may not be enough.”

If you’re looking for narrative, forget it — English is expunging the contents of his fevered subconscious out onto the page with too much ferocious precision to slow down for that sort of shit. His characters — I hesitate to use the term “protagonists” — are forever on the brink of a kind of unavoidable oblivion, barely holding it together in the face of a silent-but-immovable edifice of individuality-erasing constructs and/or phenomena such as corporations (and their logos), advertising slogans, cliched catch-phrases (which are scrawled right onto their bodies, as if they have as much physical reality as the “people” themselves), and emotional/psychological needs ultimately dependent on others for their fulfillment (validation, affirmation, love, hate). The question it seems to me he’s getting at is —who are you? Is there an irreducible element of “self” that exists apart from all these influences?

There’s no answer to that, of course —and  that’s the scary thing. Coming to terms with the idea that everything and everyone has an effect, even just a passive one, on everything and everyone else means negation is a real possibility at all times, maybe even an ongoing process, whether it comes our way via relationships, consumerism, employment, schooling — no form of interaction is safe. Everything you do means someone or something else “gets in” on some level. And yes, that even includes reading some befuddled (and, no doubt, befuddling) comic book review.

Here’s what I do know for certain : this is a work that challenged me a hell of a lot and will no doubt continue to do so, and the presentation is as gorgeous as material this lushly-rendered and thought-provoking deserves. The covers are thick cardstock; the paper slick, glossy, heavyweight. You’re holding some serious fucking art in your hands here, and Sontina pulls out all the stops on the production side to ensure you don’t forget it — as if you could. I may not have figured out this comic, or even come close to doing so, but it’s been on my mind constantly, in a way nothing I’ve read so far this year (save, perhaps, for D.R.T.’s Qoberious Vol. 1) has. Austin English has blown open a hole in the universe — and, yeah, in my head, too.

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If eight bucks to fundamentally shake up your perceptions of everything about existence itself sounds like a bargain to you — and, trust me, it is — then take the plunge and order The Enemy From Within directly from English via his Domino Books publishing and distro outfit at this link : http://dominobooks.org/enemywithin.html

 

Eurocomics Spotlight : “Red Winter”

The following is the original text of a review I wrote for Daniel Elkin’s “Your Chicken Enemy” website. I’ve posted these “first drafts” before when I’ve contributed material for his site, because I think they’re instructive for those who wish to see what a difference a good editor makes. This time out, the changes he suggested were minimal but, in my view, crucial. I learn something new every time I work with this guy!

The final version of the review can be found here, for those interested in a “head-to-head” comparison : http://www.danielelkin.com/2018/07/the-ballad-of-siv-and-ulrik-ryan-carey.html

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Like love itself, there is a poetry and beauty to Swedish cartoonist Anneli Furmark’s 2018 graphic novel  Red Winter (the first of her works to be translated into English, courtesy of its North American publisher, Drawn+Quarterly) — but it’s often understated, unobtrusive, a “part of the scenery,” if you will, that necessarily informs all people, places, and things touched by it. Which isn’t to say that the particular parameters that necessarily “wall in” the love affair at the center of this story aren’t as electrified as the cliched “third rail” — they most certainly are, given one of the paramours is married — but, as with all things Scandinavian, even if and when the shit hits the fan, the consequences will, to one degree or another, be sublimated, put in something like their “proper” place, smoothed-over to fit into a new status quo.

First, though, protagonists Ulrik (young, idealistic, Communist factory worker) and Siv (a mother of three 14 years his senior who works for/with the just-deposed Social Democrats) have to survive a politically and socially turbulent late-1970s Swedish winter in the isolated northern village that she’s lived in most (perhaps all, it’s never exactly clear) of her life, and which he’s just been effectively “deployed” to by his ostensible SKP (a Maoist political party) “superiors.” Who, then, fears discovery most — who perceives themselves as having the greatest amount to lose — is one of the richest veins of narrative tension that Furmark has at her disposal to mine.

Siv would be the most obvious choice, of course — she’s the one with the family, after all — but Ulrik’s comrades are fucking zealots of the sort that make even a Marxist-leaning individual like yours truly feel a little bit nervous. The structure of their organization is decidedly hierarchical, bordering on the downright tyrannical, and if you think a bunch of hard-liners who micro-manage their junior charges to the point of counting up how many party newspapers each manages to sell standing on street-corners on any given day are going to simply “go with the flow” if and when it’s discovered that one of said acolytes is involved with a rather milquetoast Socialist who doesn’t share their views and ideals, well — I’ve got a bridge to sell you. And it spans a frozen river in Sweden.

Told by means of a series of linearly-structured vignettes from the point of view of several individual characters (including Siv’s kids, which makes for some seriously interesting reading), for what is undoubtedly a love story first and foremost, Furmark’s book definitely has the thematic flavor of a thriller to it — but it’s a subtle one, a sympathetic one, a humanistic one. The affair is already well underway on page one — a wise choice that establishes the previously-mentioned pattern of things taken as a given right from the outset — and the passion the two have for each other is at obvious as it is unyielding, but the tensions limning it in are immediately present and accounted for, as well : ideology, responsibility, routine. The “tender traps,” as it were.

Furmark’s approach is remarkably frank and free of judgment, though, but not without passion — she simply doesn’t hit you over the head with a flood of manipulative scenarios designed to tug your heart strings in one direction or another. She has too much faith in the ability of her readers to figure all that out for themselves, it would seem, yet that doesn’t mean she isn’t keenly aware of the emotional power of every exchange from the warmest embrace to the most fleeting and furtive glance — or, for that matter, that she doesn’t understand, and communicate, the small little “soul death” that occurs when one lies to their partner; to their children.

Is this, then, a doomed love? Logic would dictate that it absolutely must be — but since when does logic enter into the equation when it comes to affairs of the heart? Furmark’s lush, expressive, detailed cartooning — awash as it is in nigh-on lyrical, but never any less than appropriately dim and, dare I say it, “wintry” watercolors — has the look and feel of true passion to it, but more crucially of a passion as “under wraps” as most other strongly-held emotions in the icy Swedish hinterlands. To that end, then, perhaps just as great a threat to this love’s ability to endure comes from within as from without — forget the husband, the kids, the Maoist true believers, and ponder the question of whether or not Siv and Ulrik can find a way to make this thing work if they can’t even make sense of it themselves.

And since we’re tallying up a list of open questions, an equally big one you’ll have to puzzle out on your own is whether or not you, as a reader, think they should keep their affair going. Not whether or not you want them to, that’s another matter entirely — there’s definitely something real and  true and even necessary that binds them together, but is this the sort of love story that will work best for both if it becomes a (sorry to be blunt, but) “full-time thing,” or would it be better for it to be a brief-but-passionate fling that they each remember fondly, even glowingly, for the rest of their lives? Because, let’s face it, we all need those, too.

After two readings of Red Winter, I admit to still having no firm answers as to how I feel about Siv and Ulrik’s situation beyond liking them both a whole lot and wanting the best for them, whatever that may be. Do they get that, in the end? It’s hard to say, and I don’t want to go down the “spoiler” road because this is a book you should feel your way through — as opposed to merely “read” — for yourself. I do know, however, that Furmark’s resolution, to the extent that she provides one, feels as true-to-form and authentic as all the events, large and small, that lead up to it, and that she has crafted an extraordinarily smart and heartfelt story that will no doubt endure as a personal favorite for many years to come.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/22/2018 – 07/28/2018, Elijah Brubaker’s “Reich,” Issues 5-8

Picking up right where we left off at last week —

Underneath the sleek, art deco cover to Elijah Brubaker’s Reich #5, we find a story that’s actually pretty heavy on intrigue — both of the political and sexual variety. On the sexual front, our guy Wilhelm’s insatiable appetites are finally straining his largely-sham marriage to the breaking point, even as his philosophy of, for wont of a better term, scientific libertine-ism begins to bear fruit in terms of small-scale social changes in Germany. His “success” is not without its detractors, though, one of them being his then-beloved Communist party, who sever ties with him in the face of the right-wing repression sweeping the country. Which brings us, I suppose, to the political intrigue, as this installment sees both Hitler’s rise to power and, subsequently, the totalitarian measures enacted in the wake of the Reichstag fire, necessitate Reich’s flight from Berlin back to Vienna. Throw in his final break with former mentor Freud and this chapter of Brubaker’s saga is one of tremendous import, delineated with ever-increasing confidence and clarity. Hell, he even makes a six-page sequence of a conversation around a barroom table look interesting. Chances are this was the point at which Silver Sprocket knew they were publishing one of the most important comics out there.

Don’t let the lush watercolors on the cover of Reich #6 fool you, what we’re witnessing is a devastating scene, as young Willy observes the deterioration and death of his father — which comes into play in the narrative toward the tail end of this issue via another extended flashback sequence. Most of our time, however, is spent in his adult years, specifically post-1933, which saw him on the move quite a bit —from Vienna to Zurich to the Swiss Alps to Paris to London to Prague to Berlin (to fetch his mistress and make a quick exit) to Oslo, where his extended estrangement from his daughters finally ends and they (and, by extension, us) are given a privileged look into his latest mission, cancer research. The term “bions” is heard for the first time and, while it’s not yet mentioned by name, the “discovery” of orgone energy also takes place in this chapter. Brubaker masterfully plays with shadows and shading like never before this time out, illustrates a scene of the Nazis burning Reich’s books with bone-chilling clarity, and even gives us a microscopic view of the mysterious “energy emissions” that would form the basis of his protagonist’s latter-years obsession. More absolutely stirring stuff for your four-dollar investment. Oh, and did I mention that Freud dies in this one, as well?

Yup, that’s a Warhol-esque image of an old school Duncan yo-yo on the cover of Reich #7, and in the Arizona desert circa 1954 we learn that Reich’s on, Peter, is quite fond of the toy. This is a “flash-forward” issue that sees a radical change in the look of the comic as Brubaker breaks away from the six-panel grid as decisively as Reich himself broke away from the continent of his birth. Things are pretty far along here — the “Cloudbuster” machine is up and running, as Reich attempts to bring rain to a region that doesn’t get much of it, but don’t let his new areas of study fool you; this is still the same old Wilhelm, as his interactions with Peter and the woman waiting their table at a cafe prove. His obsession with unexplored scientific frontiers is eclipsed only with his obsession with himself, and there’s a sense that he’s doing some real psychological damage to his child — though Brubaker, to his credit, doesn’t hit us over the head with that point, rather trusting his deft touch with dialogue and his intricate attention to facial expressions and body language to communicate all we need to know. A far more self-contained installment than any to date, this reads very much like a “stand-alone story” dropped into the the middle a sprawling epic. A gutsy move, to be sure — and a dizzyingly successful one, at that.

An older, but still obviously quite cavalier, version of our “hero” peers from the corners of his ever-inquisitive eyes at — something (or maybe someone) on the cover of Reich #8, and Brubaker uses this issue to bridge the gap between numbers six and seven, bringing us fully up to speed on everything Willy’s been up to since arriving on American shores, from his brief period in Forest Hills to the foundation of his Orgonon research center in Maine. He’s been a busy guy, to say the least, and in these pages we are introduced to his second wife, Ilse, for the first time; get a look at, and an explanation of the workings of, the so-called “orgone box”; learn about Reich’s one and only meeting with Einstein, told from the POV of Albert himself — and even meet the FDA agents (drawn in a style I can only assume Brubaker came upon by way of the great, criminally under-appreciated Jeff Nicholson) who will come to play such a significant role in our title character’s eventual downfall. The now fervently anti-Communist Reich says that he is averse to publicity these days, but could the seeds of his demise be sown by his decision to consent to an interview for The New Republic magazine? Read this comic and find out!

In seven days we’ll wrap things up by looking at the final four chapters of Reich, but in the meantime, should you feel the urge to see for yourself why I’m making such a fuss about this series (and, trust me, you should feel that urge), all twelve issues are available at https://wowcool.com/product-category/comics/indie/elijah-brubaker/

 

 

Wasted Youth? Max Clotfelter’s “The Warlok Story”

There’s one in every school — the kid with the depraved imagination. The kid with no reservations about tapping into the deepest recesses of his or her id and displaying the contents for all to see. The kid who’s something more than just a garden-variety oddball. The kid who hears, at least once every day, “dude, you’re sick” — and, fortunately for us all, for whatever unfathomable cosmic reason, those kids can usually draw.

They may not be especially good at it, mind you, but it’s more about ideas than execution. It’s about using paper and pencil as their instruments for self-exorcism, as interpretive devices for channeling what’s within to the outside world. About cooking up the sickest, most extreme shit imaginable not just because they can, but because they must.

Max Clotfelter was one such kid, and in his 2016 self-published mini, The Warlok Story, he reflects back on his time as resident school sicko, on the effect that being “found out” by adults had on his life, on how circumstances at home at the time probably informed his work —  yet this is no mere slice of nostalgic reminiscence; in truth, it’s actually a rigorous piece of self-examination, a first-person analysis of not only why the author drew deliberately outrageous doodles and short comics stories, but what his compulsive need to do so said about him then, and how this extended period of his youth informed, and continues to inform, the adult that he eventually became.

Parallels to the saga of Mike Diana spring to mind immediately when reading this comic, especially since both gentlemen upset the sensibilities of delicate readers in the so-called “Bible Belt,” but Clotfelter was doing what he did at a younger age, only distributed his work around the classroom rather than via the USPS, and his strips, while grotesque, didn’t concern themselves much (if at all) with themes of sexual abuse. The full weight of the law, then, didn’t come down on him like a ton of bricks, but that doesn’t mean the powers that be didn’t seek to stifle his creativity in the name of the “common good” — indeed, the “thought police,” in the form of school psychiatrists, administrators, and teachers, adjudicated our guy Max to be an “unhealthy influence” (on others, sure — but primarily, it would seem, on himself), and so he literally was forbidden to draw the “adventures” of his sadistic, hyper-violent protagonist, Warlok, and his notebooks, school locker, and even bedroom were subject to random searches to make damn sure he was staying on the straight, narrow, and tedious path forced upon him. So much for that vaunted “first amendment” we hear so much about, huh?

Which isn’t to say that he didn’t figure out a way to keep a “secret stash” for himself, of course, but going to art school and discovering women and drugs (not necessarily in that order) finally proved to be too mighty a set of circumstances for even the indomitable Warlok to vanquish, and while Clotfelter has continued to refine his technique over the years (although the cartooning in this comic has a pleasingly and deliberately “amateurish” look to it, and is even presented on faux-“ruled” pages, composition book-style), his fascination with the proscribed, the tasteless, the forbidden has, thank goodness (or badness, take your pick) continued apace, as anyone who’s followed his work in any number of anthologies over the years — as well as in “solo” publications such as Pube Smoke or Andros — can attest to. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that he’s picked up the gauntlet thrown down by earlier “extreme” cartoonists such as S. Clay Wilson, Rory Hayes, Joe Coleman, and the aforementioned Mr. Diana, but that he’s unquestionably done it his own way, his strips generally being as firmly rooted in the tradition of autobiographical comics as they are in the aesthetics of so-called “ugly art.”

That dichotomy is thrown into sharp relief when the more “mature” and “level-headed” Clotfelter discovers the discarded “Warlok” drawings and comics of his teenage years and feels equal parts ashamed of, yet mysteriously compelled by, them — and so, in a very real sense, this story is an exercise in coming to terms with his younger self, an act not so much of simply remembering as it is of reconciling. Anybody who’s near, at, or beyond mid-life can certainly relate to this — to the idea of looking at who we used to be and finding that person to be both immediately familiar and downright alien simultaneously — but most of us don’t have an actual artistic record to confront us with the similarities and differences of our past and present selves in stark and unavoidable fashion. Reflecting on who you were, what you’ve done, and where you’ve come from is one thing — having your past literally answer back, with evidence in tow, is something else altogether.

If this all sounds like pretty weighty stuff for a modest mini-comic to tackle, rest assured that it is, but Clotfelter never gets heavy-handed and he maintains a frank,  even conversational, tone throughout, frequently managing to see the funny (or at least ironic) side to life experiences that left indelible marks, probably even scars, but that also, if nothing else, conclusively prove the old adage that (say it with me now) “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” — and this is very strong work indeed.

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The Warlok Story is more than just a terrific mini-comic — at a paltry $2.00, it’s also a terrific bargain. I grabbed the scans for this review from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro, and that’s also (at least to my knowledge) the only place online where the book can be purchased, so do the right thing and order it up at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/the-warlok-story-by-max-clotfelter/

 

 

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/15/2018 – 07/21/2018, Elijah Brubaker’s “Reich,” Issues 1-4

Every comics fan has “holes” in his or her reading history — books that you know you should have read, books that everyone goes on and on about but that you, for whatever reason(s), simply haven’t gotten around to yet. This past week, I finally got around to addressing one of those.

Seriously, though, who are we kidding? For a guy with both feet in the comics scene and at least one foot (does that give me three?) in the world of parapolitics/parascience/”conspiracy culture,” the fact that I hadn’t read Elijah Brubaker’s celebrated Reich, a 12-part chronicle of the life, times, tribulations, and travails of (in?)famous psychoanalyst/inventor/philosopher/shit-disturber Wilhelm Reich is more than a “hole,” its a yawning chasm, and frankly pretty well inexcusable, yet my excuses were plentiful : my LCS didn’t stock it while it was running (for nearly a decade at that, from 2007-2014), its publisher, Sparkplug Comics Books is (sadly) no longer with us, I could never find the issues all together from one seller online at a reasonable price — the list is endless as it is now, I’m happy to report, irrelevant. That’s because it just so happens that I did finally find them all in one place — and at cover price, no less! This matters because, as far as I know, there are no plans to collect the entire series in a single volume any time soon. I’m four issues into it as of this writing and, honestly, pretty impressed with what Brubaker’s managed to achieve here, so let’s have a look, shall we?

Reich #1 opens with its protagonist/subject availing himself of the “services” of a local prostitute while stationed in Italy during WW I, thus setting the stage, screenplay-style, for the idea that this is a guy who simply can’t get enough sex no matter the circumstances, and from there we fast-forward to his University Of Vienna days, where he first joins, then effectively commandeers, a boundary-pushing student group determined to fill in the gaps their professors and textbooks aren’t addressing through independent exploration and discussion — and we come to see in no time at all that this is a man who is equal parts charismatic, strong-willed, arrogant, and undeniably brilliant. He’s not an easy person to actually like, but that’s not the point — Brubaker’s goal is to establish in readers a perhaps-begrudging sense of respect for Reich, and he achieves that with ease. After all, here’s a guy who, while still a student, had the audacity to knock on the door of Sigmund Freud’s home and essentially invite himself in for a discussion with the man who would, effectively, become his mentor.

This first issue also shows its hand as far as its primary cartooning influences go right off the bat — in terms of format, substance, and structure it owes a heavy (and acknowledged) debt to Chester Crown’s Louis Riel, borrowing its smaller rectangular, cardstock-covered publication design, its end notes at the back (although in fairness Brubaker’s citations, explanations, and references are nowhere near as extensive as Brown’s), and its rigid adherence to the “classic” six-panel grid; in terms of actual cartooning style, though, it’s clear that Brubaker is channeling his inner Richard Sala, complete with the exaggerated, angular facial features, rich and inky shadows, woodcut-style hatching, and Van Gogh-ish swirls. It is, therefore, by no means a unique look, but it’s a highly effective one for an Eastern European-set “period piece” such as this, and the plotting and pacing of the narrative are spot-on, with this debut installment ending with a gripping cliffhanger wherein Reich is confronted with the first of many personal scandals that would plague both his life and career. A very promising start to a series that already bears all the hallmarks of being a memorable one, indeed.

Reich #2 shows “Willy,” as his friends call him, being an even bigger bastard in the context of his romantic dalliances, and growing progressively more arrogant and aloof as his unconventional therapeutic approaches begin to garner something of a reputation for him among the Viennese psychoanalytic “elite.” His leftist political leanings begin to flower, but who knows? He may just be in it for the pussy — which is even sleazier than it sounds because he’s “married with children” by this point. A stirring portrait of a man riddled with more complexities than the goddamn New York Times Sunday crossword begins to emerge, and the issue ends with Reich on the receiving end of a perceived slight from Freud that would set his researches off in bold, controversial new directions. Brubaker is stepping out of Sala’s cartooning shadow slowly but with a fair degree of confidence here, establishing a visual language of his own that pays homage to his primary influence (okay, influences, plural, because Brown’s presence is still felt, as well), without outright “aping” it any longer. This is a cartoonist, and a project, finding its footing in an impressively brief amount of time.

In Reich #3, a frightening near-death (or so it would seem) experience triggers an extended flashback to our guy Wilhelm’s childhood, and to say that his upbringing was “harrowing” is to put it too kindly : domineering and abusive father, manic-depressive mother (not without good reason), barely-sublimated Oedipal urges, willing female household staff members several years his senior, a physically and emotionally fragile younger brother — all topped by a scandalous revelation that may just blow everything apart. Brubaker kicks things into another gear with this superb chapter, and like the story, the art is getting stronger and more confident with each successive installment, as well.

Finally (for now), we come to Reich #4, in which the full-scale depravity of young Willy’s formative years comes fully into view, his enraged father essentially committing a torturous, years-long murder of his mother in full view of everyone — and manipulating his sons into turning their backs on her while he does so. This is gut-wrenching stuff, and — here we go gain, but it’s true — while it makes for the strongest issue yet, this is undoubtedly also the most difficult one to get through. Add in some rapidly-escalating political turmoil  in Vienna once Reich returns from his extended convalescence, and the end result is graphic storytelling replete with tension so thick you gotta cut it with a knife. Superb scenes of burning buildings and angry street riots showcase Brubaker’s deft touch with cinematic-style action — and speaking of cinema, Reich and his wife check out Fritz Lang’s Metropolis at the theater!

Okay, that’ll do it for this week, but we’re going to keep this train rolling until we’re done, so in the next Round-Up column look for issues #s 5-8. We’ll see you back here for that in seven days, then, and in the meantime, if you should feel so moved as to order these comics up for yourself, they’re all available (again, at cover price — fuck eBay!) from Wow Cool via this handy link : https://wowcool.com/product-category/comics/indie/elijah-brubaker/

 

 

Lizz Lunney’s “Big Bonerz” Isn’t What You Think — Even When It is

At first glance, UK cartoonist Lizz Lunney’s Big Bonerz, a 44-page collection of her black and white Street Dawgz strips collected between two riso-printed covers by J.T. Yost’s Birdcage Bottom Books, appears to be a sort of “edgy” or “confrontational” updating of the venerable “funny animal” genre, but the thing with preconceptions is — pun only slightly intended because, frankly, it’s not a very good one — well, they can be a real bitch.

And that goes double, as it turns out, when they’re right. This is, you see, a very funny comic — and it’s a crisp and incisive kind of funny, one that reflects real-world concerns and all-too-human foibles and frailties, even if it features a group of canine protagonists who are operating in “our” stead as they grapple with issues ranging from debilitating depression, class struggles, celebrity worship, and anger management to drug dependency, internet addiction, lethargy, and homelessness. So what, then, is unexpected here? I’m glad you asked —

While characterization is admittedly scant within these pages and frequently leaned upon/developed as pretext in service of “gag” set-ups, there is a narrative “through-line” of sorts that Lunney is pursuing, and it’s got a lot of heart to it. Her cardboard-box-dwelling “dawgz” are more than figures to poke fun at and/or feel sorry for, they’re actually pretty damn easy to relate to — especially if you’ve either known junkies/addicts (particularly homeless junkies/addicts) or, no judgments here, been one yourself. You want authenticity? You’re actually going to find plenty of it on offer in this modest little book.

That being said, you needn’t worry — if you’re pre-disposed to be concerned about such things — that the overall tone of the proceedings here is “too heavy.” It’s not light-hearted, by any means — these are some serious topics being tackled, after all — but Lunney succeeds in, if you’ll forgive the term, humanizing skid-row-level travails, most especially “crack bone’ addiction, by serving them up with a generous helping of gallows humor deployed at just the right moments. Indeed, her comic timing is nothing short of pitch-perfect, and while the laughs we get don’t exactly “defuse” the often-harrowing scenarios that the book revolves around, they do make them seem less alien, less unrelatable, less other. Thanks, again, to a bunch of self-consciously “hip” dogs.

As far as Lunney’s cartooning style goes, my guess is that it will generally divide people into polarized “love it” or “hate it” camps, with very few readers falling somewhere in-between — and I’m happy to say that I’m part of the “love it” crowd. I freely admit to being something of a sucker for art that conveys a maximum amount of visual information with a minimal number of lines — I think it’s a genuinely rare and under-appreciated skill — and this comic keeps it lean, mean, and decidedly unclean. Rapid-fire “squiggly” lines and precisely haphazard (trust me when I say that only sounds like a contradiction) pen-strokes give each character a unique look and feel, convey a sense of place with economy and skill, and bring out a surprising amount of expressiveness in faces and body language. This isn’t elegant “funnybooking,” by any means — nor should it be, given its central conceits and concerns — but it is undeniably smart and effective. And that, come to think of it, isn’t such a bad summation of the comic itself.

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Big Bonerz may not appeal to all, but if it sounds like the sort of thing that will appeal to you, then it’ll appeal to you a lot. For my part, I’ve read it three times and can easily foresee giving it a go again both in the very near future, as well as every so often (hey, you know how it goes) in the years to come — so that makes it seven bucks well spent in my estimation. It can be ordered directly from the publisher at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/products/big-bonerz