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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. Your patronage there not only helps keep things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I hope you’ll take a moment to have a look and consider joining, needless to say your support would be greatly appreciated.

Oh, and I suppose a link would help. Here you go :https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 03/31/2019 – 04/06/2019, Aaron Lange And Brian Canini

Better late than —ah, let’s just get to it, with the latest from old friends of this site Aaron Lange and Brian Canini.

The insanely-talented (and sometimes controversial) Lange landed back on my radar with a package containing his three most recent comics ‘zines, issues 7, 8, and 9 of Cash Grab!, once a side-project that seems to be his main outlet now with his more traditional, narrative-driven publication, Trim, either being on an extended hiatus of sorts, or simply shuttered altogether. Sometimes less is more, and Lange, to his credit, seems to be “zeroing in” on his strong points with just one comic on his metaphorical “plate.”

Cash Grab! #7 bills itself as yet another entry in his occasional “sketchbook selections”series, but that title’s a bit misleading even if he does include obsessively-detailed portraits of the likes of “B”-movie actress Kari Wuhrer. To me, the more intriguing offerings in this issue were a moving tribute to a recently-deceased old high school friend, an “inside baseball” gag strip revolving around fellow cartoonists Ed Piskor and Emil Ferris, and “MK-Ultraman,” a bizarre mish-mash of the famous Japanese television superhero and the CIA’s supposedly-terminated mind control program — a favorite target of the great Mack White. This is a really strong installment in this series, with a shit-ton of variety — including some stuff to, of course, offend the sensibilities of the delicately-predisposed. Or, I suppose, anyone with a conscience.

Cash Grab! #8, billed as a “Deep Cuts” issue, continues the “mixed media” trend, and it continues to work — a strip entitled “The Aesthetics Of Grief,” focused on the public appearances of musician Nick Cave and his wife, Susie Bick, after the death of their son Arthur is probably the standout selection on offer, but an examination of Lange’s own alcoholism and his inability to control it really hits home, as well. Portraits of well-known comics figures, actors in the film Boogie Nights, and Janeane Garofalo round out a very strong “sampler” of Lange’s creative output.

Cash Grab #9 carries the “sketchbook selections” tag again, this one tightly-focused on the world of porn, something Lange can never seem to stray too far from. As you’d no doubt expect, this one’s a bit more — ahem! — specialized in terms of its appeal, but Lange does a nice job of balancing out gag strips and adult industry anecdotes with eminently readable profiles of porn stars he likes, offering brief “highlights” of their careers along with the reasons he likes them to flesh out the basic biographical information he supplies. Pictures of an anonymous asshole (literally) and the like might put some folks off, sure, but this is still a fascinating, amazingly-rendered piece of work.

All three of these issues — as well as Lange’s other work still in print — can be obtained from The Comix Company at https://thecomixcompany.ecrater.com/c/1133596/aaron-lange-comix

Switching gears in a big way, albeit to a small book —

Plastic People #8 is the most recent installment in Brian Canini’s very solid sci-fi series. These minis seem to come out three or four times a year, and are always a welcome read — even if #7 was, in my view, a clunker. He’s back to form with this one, though, delivering the most interesting issue to date, as we return in earnest to the murder mystery set in a plastic surgery-obsessed future LA that is the central premise of this story. We meet the victim’s boyfriend in this one, and man, what a douchebag this guy turns out to be. Canini crams a lot into eight pages here, visually and narratively, and is really at his best, I think, working within the strictures of this format — one that confounds many, but that he consistently makes the most of with his brisk, sharp storytelling. His deceptively simple line art also communicates a lot with a little, and generally leaves me impressed. Always well worth the two dollar expenditure.

You can check out a preview of Plastic People #8, and explore Canini’s other works, at his Drunken Cat Comics website : https://drunkencatcomics.com/plastic-people-8-preview/

The one “advantage” to my doing a Round-Up column late is that you don’t have to wait as long for the next installment, of course, so do come back Sunday morning for that one, and in the meantime, if you’d care to help support my work, my Patreon page is filling up with a nice amount of content focused on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Your support there not only keeps it all going, but also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I’d be very gratified if you’d take a look and consider joining at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Nothing Works Your Nerves Like A “Jesusfreak”

I’m not sure what it is about “Bible comics,” but there’s something appealing about the whole notion, even to a devout non-believer such as myself. Whether it’s the fire and brimstone of a Jack T. Chick or the scaled-down intimacy of a Chester Brown, I’m down for a sequential-art spin on the Good Book anytime.

So yeah, Joe Casey and Bejamin Marra’s new Image graphic “novel” (length-wise it’s probably generous to call it even a novellaJesusfreak was something I was intrigued by from the moment it was first announced. Both creators are hit or miss for me — Casey seems to do his best work when he’s in pure “homage mode” (Godland and Captain Victory And The Galactic Rangers  both being riffs on The King, Sex reading like an answer to the question “what if Howard Chaykin did The Dark Knight Returns?), and ditto for Marra, who can get awfully self-consciously “cheeky” when not reined in by the at least the pretense of trying to pay respect to his Bronze Age influences.

In that respect, then, the idea of the two of them sharing a sandbox (or maybe that should be a soapbox) almost has an air of inevitability to it, and one would assume they’d play well together. Which, I’ll state right here in the early going, they most certainly do : you can always tell when a pair of creators is on the same page as they go about the business of — errmmm — filling up the page, and these guys are simpatico in the extreme.

Points for that, then — Casey is writing like Doug Moench, Marra is drawing like Paul Gulacy. And Jesus is their very own Shang Chi.

Yeah, I missed that part of the Bible, too — where the son of God goes on a “vision quest” within himself, emerges a super-powered martial arts warrior, and fights a fucking lizard man. But hey, here it is. And for all its thematic and aesthetic coherence, I’m wondering why I shouldn’t simply have read my old Master Of Kung-Fu back issues instead.

There’s a great deal of mystery surrounding Jesus’ “wilderness years,” of course — the period in between his birth and the weeks leading up to his crucifixion that, funny enough, all four gospels just blow off completely, and Casey does his level best to fill in some of those blanks before having his Sonny Chiba iteration of the son of man arrive at his crucial first meeting with John the Baptist, but once we get past all that, the book’s rationale more or less completely disappears : we’re not in “what happened during the time we don’t know about” territory, we’re in “what happened that we don’t know about during the time that we do know about” territory, and I can think of a lot more interesting ways to answer both of those questions than what we’re given here.

Which probably sounds like a harsher condemnation than the book deserves given its sheer technical merit : Casey scripts with a kind of forced-but-eminently-readable “purple”  tint to his prose, Marra adheres not just to the style but to the visual storytelling smarts of the aforementioned Mr. Gulacy and the originator of his artistic line, Jim Steranko, and Brad Simpson’s hues are just plain incredible, modern technology in service of approximating the look of the best of done-by-hand colorists of years gone by, such as Steve Oliff. It all reads and feels like an entirely sensible updating of a 1975 Marvel comic.

Which is no bad thing to be, mind you — but deploying this more-than-competently-executed bit of “retro chic” in service of  the most “retro” story ever told? Sorry, but some sort of reason for existing in the first place would be helpful at this point, and all I see here is Casey and Marra stretching an “edgelord” premise out way too far. Those ideas you come up with over a few beers with friends at a party? Not all of them are the best use of  your creative energy, to say nothing of your time.

All of which is to say that Jesusfreak reads precisely like the vanity project it no doubt is — something Casey himself even states pretty plainly in the book’s introduction, wherein he essentially challenges readers to find any sort of deeper meaning or hidden subtext in this work and lets them know in advance that they’ll come up empty, because all he and Marra were trying to do was make the sort of “fun” story they’d both enjoy reading themselves.

Then, in his afterword, he talks about comics like Watchmen and says that he hopes this comic will get people to think in much the same way that one did. So, ya know, which is it? Tests of one’s faith are constant in this book, but it’s the way that it lacks any sort of clearly-discernible central thesis beyond “my dude, wouldn’t it be cool if Jesus kicked ass?” that’s most likely to test your patience here.

Not that making something just because you can is necessarily bad. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it’s a lot better when the work produced bothers to address the issue of its own raison d’etre and maybe even endeavors to find it. Failing that, it could at least opt to convince its audience that they might be able to take something from it that the creators didn’t necessarily intend for them to, but nope. Casey and Marra let it be known they’re not putting any particular meaning into this thing, don’t even want to pretend that they are — then they say they hope you came across one regardless. But if you haven’t taken the time to examine why you want to do something, then why should readers give one good goddamn whit what it is you’ve come up with, much less waste their time mining the non-existent depths of a work that openly admits it has none?

I dunno. Jesusfreak isn’t actively bad by any means, but that’s because it really isn’t actively anything. Two guys figured they’d take a crack at turning a small portion of the Bible into a ’70s Marvel book, and they managed to pull it off. I’m not going to damn them to the pits of hell for it, but I’m hardly going to jump up and yell “hallelujah!,” either.

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This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a whole lot of politics. Your patronage there not only allows me to keep things going, it also ensures a steady supply of entirely free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I strive to make sure you get good value for your heard-earned money, so rest assured — there’s a bunch of material on there already, and if you like my work, you’re seriously going to dig what I’m up to on the other side of a very affordable “paywall.” Join up, and you can find out for yourself.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy, so here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Precise Chaos : Max Huffman’s “Plaguers Int’l”

As a mass of contradictions, Max Huffman’s kickstarted, self-published comic Plaguers Int’l is — and here’s me “spoiling” the review early — wildly, perhaps even deliriously, successful. As a self-contained piece of “world-building,” though, it may be even more so.

Described by the cartoonist himself as a “North American manic feel-bad sideways world adventure comic,” that actually makes sense once you read the thing , but fair warning : the real world may not anymore by the time you’re done.

Not that it ever really did, of course, which is why the mish-mash of everything plus the kitchen sink that is this book is such a welcome reprieve from basically any kind of pre-conceived nothing you had about — I dunno, anything at all, really. Bronze Age scripting meets post-modern artistic sensibilities in a super-hero team book that’s less “piss-take” than it is loving homage but still not quite either one? Hey, I’m game for that, but also aware that probably makes this thing sound a lot like, say, All-Time Comics, which this most assuredly is not.

No offense intended toward ATC, which I quite enjoy, but any inherently “retro” sensibilities Huffman toys with are merely one more piece of “background noise” in a comic redolent with plenty of it, and are in no way the “backbone” of this work. Which leads the astute reader, I would think, to ask “okay, so what is?,” and puzzling that out is one of the book’s great charms. On the one hand it’s too traditional to be experimental, on the other it’s too experimental to be traditional. That means it gives itself no choice but to occupy a self-created space all its own, and that means Huffman is a cartoonist who’s playing for keeps. Duuuuuude — respect. Seriously.

According to our author, the Plaguers are an “extranational paramilitary death squad,” but they read more like “the good guys” to me. Again with the contradictions. But with names like Swirving Wildley and Salmon Dan, how bad can they possibly be? In the meantime, how “good” can somebody named Movement Salon, leader of a “wasteland guerrilla junk cult” be? It’s hard to say, isn’t it? Welcome to the “world-building” mentioned at the outset.

Exotic and entirely non-sensical weapons! Warring factions with little to no clear agenda on either side! Relationship angst in the absence of any relationship! Detailed internal monologue narration by people we’ve never met before and know nothing about! Breakneck action with no discernible point! My God, where has this book been all my life????

I spoke of chaos, and it’s here in plentiful supply, but Huffman’s line is so refined, so razor-sharp, that this comic’s sheer, across-the-board cleanliness could fool you into thinking the story it’s telling is a nice, tidy, orderly affair. It looks like it should be. But our guy Max has other — and far better — ideas. He knows what he’s doing so intimately, so innately, that whether or not you or I do well and truly becomes immaterial. Trust completely or get the fuck out of the way.

And I do trust Max Huffman completely, regardless of whether or not that’s good for my health or sanity. I trust him to make comics like no one else has or ever again will. I trust him to be several steps ahead of me at all times but to make the act of playing “catch-up” a mind-bending and sensibility-shredding romp. I trust him to imbue every image, whether it calls to mind art deco or post-psychedelia, with meaning and intent. I trust him to take me places I’ve never been by means of transport I’ve never conceived of. And I trust him to get me there and back in one piece.

Which, of course, is foolhardy in the extreme on my part. He’s only responsible for taking us there, while the “getting back” part? That’s up to us — and I’m not sure that I have come back from Plaguers Int’l.

But that’s okay — I’m really not sure that I want to. This world is too damn cool to leave.

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Plaguers Int’l sells for $8 and is available from Domino Books (of course) at http://dominobooks.org/plaguers.html

This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. Your support there not only allows me to keep things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I’d be very gratified if you’d take a moment to have a look and consider joining at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

“Nick’s Rainbow Pepsi Blood” : The Wildest, Weirdest Thing You’ll Ever Drink — Or Read

I don’t even know where to begin. Seriously.

Of all the unusual and/or avant-garde comics I’ve reviewed over the years, this one may be the most unusual and/or avant-garde of the bunch, a 12-page slice of self-published singularity from Pitsburgh’s Samuel Ombiri that, sure, can be described, dissected, and discussed — but is really pushing my critical faculties to their limits in an attempt to do so adequately.

Notice I don’t say accurately, as this is one of those minis that there’s probably no “right” or “wrong” way to read — assuming your eyes can even handle the deliberately-obfuscated printing enough to read it at all. Yup, folks — you’ve gotta come into this one willing to put in some work.

That work is rewarded, fear not, as Ombiri is not only a skilled but a very smart cartoonist, but he’s out to challenge you at every turn with this book. No less an authority than our friend Austin English has compared Ombiri’s work to that of E.C. Segar — by no means bad company to be in, and a natural enough connection to make given that the characters in this comic wax and wane between discourse, debate, confrontation, physical altercation, and back again over the course of the elliptical conversation on matters theoretical, theological, suicidal, and entirely abstract over the course of the very funny conversation that makes up the bulk of the narrative here — but it’s E.C. Segar on a couple hits of bad acid plus plenty of coffee, a heady mix that can fool you, at times, into thinking you’ve hit some sort of comfortable groove, yet never completely loses the potential to veer into combustible territory at less than the drop of a hat.

If you came to relax, then, you’ve come to the wrong place.

Ombiri seems to do his level best to make this comic (hell, probably all his comics — see the scan reproduced from another one of his works altogether below) at least somewhat impenetrable, but he allows for a “way in” at all times, albeit one that’s got to be earned; the intellectually lazy or aesthetically un-ambitious will be tossing in the towel quickly here, and not without justification. I could even excuse putting it aside if you don’t fit either of those less-than-complimentary descriptors but simply don’t feel in the mood.

Still, one quick glance lets you know you’re in for something different with this book,  the final six pages being obviously wider than the first six, the cover an intentionally-poor reproduction of an image of — shit, something. Points, then, for truth in advertising and packaging. But there’s a surprising amount of traditionalism at this comic’s core, as well, a dogged adherence to slapstick mores and morays that could almost be fairly said to mark this as a “throwback” work. It’s old wine in new bottles, and that contrast and conflict, that push and pull between polarities, lends the entire thing a formal and conceptual tension that makes it not just interesting, but downright exciting.

Still, this is most definitely “eye of the beholder” and “your mileage may vary” art in every single way imaginable. Slapdash on the one hand, yet strictly intentional and deliberate on the other, as disturbing as it is hysterical, expect to be feel alienated and charmed in equal measure, impressed and distressed simultaneously. Defying classification, categorization, at times even interpretation (depending on your eyesight more than anything else), Ombiri has created a work that no one else would, could, or should even attempt with this comic — which makes it a “must-read” item regardless of whether you end up liking it or not.

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Nick’s Rainbow Pepsi Blood sells for $7 from — where else? — Domino Books. It can be ordered at http://dominobooks.org/nicksrainbow.html

This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly updates on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. Your patronage there not only helps me keep things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I’d be very pleased to have your support, so please take a moment to check it out and consider joining at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

A Quick Field Guide To The Wonders You’ll See In “A Different Sky”

What happens when a couple of stoner buddies, with an assist from their possibly-visionary older homeless “third wheel” sidekick, stumble across the machinations of an ancient cult devoted to summoning up some supernatural bird-creature or other, and then find themselves unable to stop their not-quite-dastardly plan?

I’ve never asked myself that multi-faceted question, but apparently Iowa City-based cartoonist Samuel D. Benson has, and he answers it over the course of 50 magazine-sized pages in his latest self-published opus, A Different Sky. The answer? Not much. But this one’s much more about the journey than it is the (non-) resolution.

Massive props where they’re due : Benson absolutely draws the living shit out of every panel. Vaguely Joshua Cotter-esque cross-hatching and barely-constrained linework take up every scintilla of real estate — yet nothing either looks or feels over-rendered or otherwise too “busy” for its own good. This is art that reins in its frenetic energy just enough to tell a story, and to do so expressively and absolutely uniquely, with the physical environs of the unnamed town the “action” occurs in playing just as large a role in the visual narrative as do the characters themselves. There are no short-cuts employed here, no time-saving bits of artistic trickery. Benson fills up your eyes as surely as he fills up his pages.

That ethos carries over to the scripting, as well, densely-packed word balloons employed in service of a complex, if meandering, plot admirably ambitious in its scope and loaded with as much un-subtle commentary on the culture of aimless “20-somethings” as it is with supernatural mystery and pleasingly intense foreboding.

All of which is to say that there’s a whole lot going on here — conceptually, spatially, formally. Benson’s earlier efforts (one of which is pictured below for purposes of demonstrating his artistic versatility) have clearly provided enough by way of wind under his sails to convince him that he can handle a “big” story, and this one certainly fits that bill. This is a comic that bites off quite a bit — but can it possibly chew such a loaded mouth-full?

That probably depends on your perspective. From where I’m sitting — and tune out now, please, if “spoilers” piss you off — the idea that once the big bad bird shows up, nothing really changes apart from the fact that there’s now a noisy, ugly creature flying, squawking, and shitting from way up in the sky is perfectly in line with Benson’s “every day is just another day, so fuck it, just do what you gotta do to get by” outlook, but I can easily see, and am even mildly sympathetic toward, the disappointment some readers may feel in regards to such a let’s-not-even-call-it-a-conclusion. It’s curious, admittedly, to end such a convoluted, swerving, subplot-laden narrative on a note of “oh well, guess that was that,” but frankly, a more tidy and traditional wrap-up would have felt false on its face. This? Crazy and fantastical as it is, it still makes a kind of “sense” within the larger framework of the social milieu this comic is set against and within.

I dunno. It’s a wacky, weird, at times even wonderful book, but it’s one that plays by its own set of rules, and it never slows down enough to acknowledge how many tropes it’s not only subverting, but downright obliterating. Some may find that alienating in and of itself, while others are likely to find it exciting.  I number among the latter, so this comic not only worked for me, it really worked for me.

And with a price tag of only $8, there’s not much reason to forego taking a gamble on this and seeing whether or not it works for you, as well. I’ll be very curious to see what Benson does next, as he seems to be one of those cartoonists who’s “putting it all together” in terms of establishing his own singular way of making comics. There’s probably a long-form graphic novel on the horizon from him, and if you take a flyer on this book, a few years down the road you’ll be able to say that you knew all about Samuel D. Benson well before he became the next big deal.

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You can order A Different Sky directly from Samuel D. Benson at https://longgonecomix.bigcartel.com/product/a-different-sky

This review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon page, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly updates on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. Lately, in fact, it’s been a lot of politics. Your patronage there not only allows me to keep things going, it also ensures a steady supply of free content both here and at my trashfilmguru movie site. I’d be very gratified to have your support, so please take a moment to check it out and consider joining at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Keep Feeling “Soft Fascinations”

Reasonably hot off the heels of her magnificent, dreamlike Recollection, breathtaking comics poetry auteur Alyssa Berg returns with another self-published collection, Soft Fascinations, once again riso-printed with a varied and deeply sympathetic color palette that accentuates her themes of memory, fluidity, sensory consciousness, and transcendence with a kind of remarkably naturalistic aplomb, while at the same time bathing the book’s expressive illustrations with a soft, ephemeral glow. Calling it “beautiful” doesn’t do it nearly enough justice — trust me.

At just 20 pages, this is a shorter work than Berg’s last, justly-celebrated release, and yet it feels more conceptually “tight” and focused, as if each short “strip” (a term we’ll employ, by dint of sheer necessity, in as broad and expansive a fashion as possible) builds upon the one before it to present, in the end, a holistic journey within that is grounded not so much — okay, maybe even not at all — in a consensus view of “reality,” but rather in an artistic philosophy that eternally searches for human connection in all ways, at all times, between all people.

What would not be wise is to mistake this comic’s inherent universality for an eschewing of the individual, the singular, the idiosyncratic. Berg speaks a visual language all her own and communicates in it fluently, presenting readers with something wholly unique and new, yet instantly and intensely familiar — not necessarily in the way comics are, but in the way dreams are. The internal and the external are not so much linked herein as they are co-dependent on each other for their very survival, and engaged in a perpetual cycle of co-creation that even the most dense and impenetrable “New Age” texts would be at a loss to adequately explain and/or delineate — one births the other, flows from it, complements it, before returning the favor and and starting the cycle all over again, the circle this time running in the opposite direction.

It sounds like fairly standard-issue “Ying/Yang” stuff, I’m sure, but in point of fact it’s anything but.

I’m more than happy to entertain the notion that a sort of “oblique universality” was nowhere near Beg’s mind as she wrote and drew this comic, but no matter — results are what counts, and any artist worth their salt can tell you that once a work is completed, its method of absorption, as well as what it is that’s even absorbed by audiences in the first place, takes the form of  a conversation held between reader and book, with the artist as more facilitator than dictator.

What’s especially remarkable (among other things, of course), though, at least to my mind, is how utterly un-pretentious Berg’s work is, despite operating within the confines of a milieu that lends itself to pretense more easily than it does to polemic — not that this bears any hallmarks either, Berg displays an almost allergic avoidance to laying all her cards on the table in too obvious or heavy-handed a fashion, instead placing the pleasurable onus of interpretation on audiences, and likely taking a sort of distinct pleasure in knowing her loosely-constructed “story” will be seen differently by each and every person who does, in fact, see it.

Which is something you absolutely need to do, in case there was any doubt — to see it, to read it, to experience it, to feel it entirely for yourself, and on your own terms. It’s best done in a quiet space at a time when you’re not likely to be interrupted, the better to facilitate the process of absorption, but even if all you can spare in your reading schedule is a brief, 10-minute skim, you’d still be doing yourself a disservice not to at least start a dialogue with this book. It has a tremendous amount to say, but you’ll hear and see it in a way no one else has before, nor will again. Whether or not it means as much to you as it does to me is a wide-open question that only you can answer, but if you go in expecting to develop complex, sometimes even contradictory, reactions to it in the fullness of time, you’ll be in the right “head space” regardless of outside circumstances beyond your control. As long as your mind and heart are open, you’ll get something from this book.

Hell, you’ll get a lot of “somethings” from it. And they’ll be entirely unique to you, each and every one of them. There’s magic afoot in the lush, soul-stirring pages of Soft Fascinations. I urge you to fall under its powerfully understated spell immediately.

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If you’re a regular reader of this site, chances are you’ll probably already know where you can get a copy of this remarkable work. You guessed it, Domino Books, where it retails for $10. Here’s a direct link to its page in the Domino store :http://dominobooks.org/softfascinations.html

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