Sometimes We All Need A “New Leash On Life”

August Lipp is a cartoonist with a singular worldview that’s equal parts charming and disturbing, and he’s unafraid to blend the two in unique ways that leave you feeling decidedly amused, decidedly uneasy, and, frequently, wonderfully perplexed. When he firmly stakes out a distinct point of view and tone he’s capable of “hitting it out of the park” like nobody’s business — Roopert stands as one of the finest comics of the past decade — but hey, every artist has a process they need to work through before arriving at wherever it is they’re going, and that’s what his recently self-published New Leash On Life is all about.

The funny thing, though, is that for what’s billed as a collection of notebook drawings spanning the 2019-2020 period, these are, by and large, remarkably finished works — Lipp puts more “sweat equity” into many ostensibly “throwaway” illustrations than some cartoonists do into their final product — but tonally they run the gamut from light-hearted comedy to queasy stuff in the mold of old-school Ivan Brunetti, with many of these uniformly impressive pen-and-ink numbers (particularly the double-page crowd scenes loaded to the gills with all sorts of mystifying addenda and errata) combining the comforting and the shocking in one go, the end result being a visual stew that’s using the entire contents of his id as its ingredients.

There’s also a wide variety of things going on here structurally and formally, with this mini presenting a heady mix of gag strips, surreal scenes, and even loosely-developed “narratives” along with those spreads I just mentioned. Of particular interest is a recurring character who we’ll just call “snail man,” who by turns is either “cosplaying” the animal in question or outright metamorphosing into one — it’s hard to say which way that’s going, I guess, but what’s not in question is that he appears to be fucking a shell-less female snail. Which I always thought was a slug. But then, I never knew either snails or slugs had lips and teeth and eyelashes, so maybe I’ve just been leading a sheltered existence. In any case, the couple seems quite happy, especially when they’re either stealing or spreading manure.

At this point, then, you likely have a good idea of what sort of stuff you’re going to find in here, and it’s all pretty breathtakingly, if occasionally sickeningly, bizarre. Some stuff even veers into “where the fuck does he come up with these ideas, anyway?” territory, such as the double-pager picturing some country bumpkin fishing in the swamp for — uhhh — naked men, but hey : it’s all good, even when it isn’t, and there’s no need for squares in the loosely-defined comics “underground,” anyway. If you can’t handle an assortment of biological freaks four-legged, two-legged, or even no-legged, you’ve come to the wrong ‘zine, but if you can? You’re in for some real eye candy.

What’s constantly amazing to me is how Lipp somehow manages to make even the most twisted denizens of his subconscious look like they probably mean you no real harm, especially when they obviously do, and most of that is down to his penchant for bulbously cartoony over-exaggeration, which he renders with a level of detail I’d classify as being downright painstaking. In fact, every single one of these illustrations is so well-done that they’re almost impossible to turn away from, even when you wish you could. This is all “weird shit,” no question — some of it even haunt-your-dreams-level “weird shit” — but it’s pretty damn hard not to be impressed by, no fooling, every single goddamn page of it.

In fairness, sure, I was a Lipp “convert” well before laying my eyes on this phantasmagoria of the delightful, the depraved, and the downright damned, but while the faint of heart may now find themselves shopping around for others to put their faith in, my own belief is unwavering. If this guy is a “cult” cartoonist, then I’m ready for my Kool-Aid any time.

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New Leash On Life is completely sold out at this point, but it’s a remarkable enough work that, hey, I thought I’d review it regardless of the fact that you can’t buy it anymore.

Review wrist check – Raven “Solitude” gray dial/black bezel model, riding a Zodiac caoutchouc rubber NATO-style field strap in burnt orange.

Four Color Apocalypse 2019 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

We’re inching closer to being done with our monstrous year-end wrap, and with this, our next-to-last list, we’ll be taking a look at my top ten “special mentions” — that is, projects that have to do with comics, or are by cartoonists, but aren’t precisely comics per se in and of themselves. The term I settled on some time back was “comics-adjacent” works, and until something better comes to mind, I’m sticking with it. And so —

10. Folrath #3 By Zak Sally (La Mano 21) – The third and final “volume” of Sally’s riso-printed prose memoir of his life on the social, economic, and cultural margins in the early 1990s ably demonstrates that he’s every bit as gifted a writer as he is a cartoonist. I hated to see this end, but loved every page of it.

9. Bubbles #4 Edited By Brian Baynes (Self-Published) – Baynes came out of nowhere this year and started cranking out the best solo old-school ‘zine in recent memory, but with number four he brought in a small handful of contributors who all turned in exemplary work, and his interview subjects included one of my favorite of the “new crop” of indie cartoonists, Josh Pettinger, and long-time favorite Archer Prewitt, so this gets the nod as the best issue to date. Long may this project continue.

8. 2016-1960 By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – The ever-idiosyncratic Zenick’s latest illustration ‘zine presents a fascinating visual case study of changing social trends and customs via hand-rendered interpretations of high school and college yearbook portrait photos. Compelling and engrossing and maybe even a little bit wistful at the margins, this tells a strong story without resorting to so much as a single line of dialogue.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? #2 Edited By Austin English And August Lipp (Domino Books) English and Lipp follow up a terrific debut issue issue with an even better sophomore effort, covering everything from EC to Anna Haifisch to weird 1990s kids’ comics to David Tea. Full disclosure : I’ve got a piece in this ‘zine, but it would have earned this spot easily regardless.

6. Crows By Jenny Zervakis (Self-Published) – A gorgeous but harrowing mix of prose and illustration that limns the collapse of a twenty-year marriage and the complete re-think of one’s life that goes along with it. As always, Zervakis finds a reason to go on via her love for nature — and nobody draws it better than she does.

5. Steve Gerber : Conversations Edited By Jason Sacks, Eric Hoffman, And Dominick Grace (University Press Of Mississippi) – The latest book in the long-running “Conversations With Comic Artists” series is also one of the best, presenting a career-spanning retrospective series of interviews with one of the most gifted writers and “far-out” thinkers in the history of the medium. If we see a “Gerber revival” of sorts in the future — and we damn well should — we can all point back to this as its starting point.

4. Bill Warren : Empire Of Monsters By Bill Schelly (Fantagraphics) – What turned out, sadly, to be the final project authored by noted comics and fandom historian Schelly was also one of his best, chronicling the life and times of the visionary publisher who brought the world everything from Famous Monsters to Blazing Combat. You hear the term “impossible to put down” a lot — this book really is just that.

3. Forlorn Toreador By E.A. Bethea (Self-Published) – The latest (and likely greatest, but hey — they’re all good) ‘zine from the endlessly creative Bethea is a poetic exploration of times, places, and people gone that utilizes an intuitively- assembled mixture of comics, prose, and portrait illustration to paint a picture of the world as it both was and is. You’ll miss reading it before it’s even over.

2. Brain Bats Of Venus : The Life And Comics Of Basil Wolverton Volume Two, 1942-1952 By Greg Sadowski (Fantagraphics) – The second entry in Sadowski’s exhaustive biography of one of comics’ most legendary iconoclasts is painstakingly researched, engagingly written, and loaded with archival documents and well over a dozen fully-restored Wolverton stories that have never looked better. Somebody’s looking down on this “labor of love” project and smiling.

1. Loop Of The Sun By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – An ancient Egyptian myth of creation is brought to kaleidoscopic, phantasmagoric life in Tessler’s mixed-media masterpiece, a culmination of everything this visionary artist has been building up to in recent years. The most visually ambitious work to ever come out of a riso printer — and the most gorgeous book you’ll purchase this year.

Next up, we’ll wrap up our year-end review with a look at my choices for the top ten original graphic novels of 2019, but until then please consider supporting my ongoing work by subscribing to 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. I make sure you get great value for your money, have no fear on that score, so do give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

Fair Warning : I’m About To Give You A “Lotta Lipp”

At first glance, it seems crazy — why would any critic, in good conscience, recommend that you spend five bucks on a mini-comic that’s primarily taken up by a story concerning the cartoonist who drew it just walking around his neighborhood? “Join me as I take an aimless stroll” is an old autobio trope, to be sure, but by and large these types of exercises about — uhhhmmm — getting a little exercise are relegated to “backup feature” status, as well they probably ought to be. If you’re gonna make this type of yarn the backbone of your book, shit — it just stands to reason that you must not have too many actual ideas, right?

Conventional wisdom, however, quite often lives up to only the first part of its name, and this is another of those occasions, because August Lipp’s Lotta Lipp Comics #1 is probably the most fascinating walk to ever make the — errrmmm — leap from mind to pen to paper. It doesn’t take up the entirety of the book’s 40 pages — there is some important preamble, in fact, relating a story about Lipp’s 2017 move to Philadelphia (yes, some people actually move to Philadelphia) that sets the stage for the long, leisurely stroll that follows in that it establishes our cartoonist/protagonist’s status as a newcomer to the so-called “City Of Brotherly Love,” and that Johnny-Come-Lately viewpoint that he brings to his environs? That, right there, makes all the difference.

Oh, sure, Lipp plays it cool and casual, but he definitely brings an outsider’s perspective to these loosely-drawn, expressive pages that communicates, with seldom a word spoken, all the awkwardness, trepidation, and adaptive struggles of the outsider, the interloper, the uninvited guest who came to visit — and decided to stay.

But that’s only half the story  —  as anybody who’s ever moved to a new city, state, country, or any combination thereof can tell you, there’s a fair amount of starry-eyed optimism that comes part and parcel with a change in scenery, as well. Stuff that everyone’s seen a thousand times or more is brand new to the recently-arrived. The everyday is exotic. The tried-and-true is immediate, visceral, captivating. The ordinary is anything but. And while a person with this (god I hate this term, but) POV may not make for the best real-life tour guide to accompany someone who’s only in town for a night our two, as the “eyes and ears” of a media audience they absolutely can’t be beat.

The amount of time I’ve spent in Philly is (fortunately, by my reckoning) minimal, but from what I have seen, Lipp more or less nails it in this comic — the row houses, the couples milling about, the bored kids aimlessly roaming, the even more bored adults standing (or, in some cases, sleeping) on their front stoops; these are all straight-up staples of life in America’s fourth-largest (I think?) city. This is as real as real gets, as observed — and subsequently communicated — by the most valuable sort of documentarian there is : somebody who hasn’t seen it all before. It’ll all be mundane as a Denny’s breakfast special for Lipp in no time, of course — hell, it may even be by now — but when he drew this? It was all fresh and new, and he was still navigating his way through unfamiliar streets, social mores, and even attitudes. And while trudging home may never make for anyone’s definition of exciting reading, in this case it’s most definitely intriguing.

Sure, this may seem like pretty staid stuff for the guy who less than a year ago gave us the fiercely idiosyncratic imaginings of Roopert, but the same keen intelligence, inherent wit, and commitment to honestly in craft (as well as ruled notebook lines) are all present and accounted for here, so please — whatever you do — avoid the assumption that this is necessarily “August Lipp Lite.” In point of fact, Lotta Lipp Comics #1 is as inquisitive, as resonant, as smart as funnybooks get. Order your copy directly from the cartoonist at https://augustlipp.tictail.com/product/lotta-lipp-comics-1

 

August Lipp’s “Roopert” : Smarter Than The Average Bear

There’s no doubt about it : “funny animal” comics aren’t what they used to be.

Then again, they never really were, at least not the good ones — one way or another, they were always at least a little bit subversive, and whether we’re talking about Walt Kelly’s open socio-political commentary in Pogo or Carl Barks’ knowing winks to the audience showing that he understood, accepted, and derived something very much like joy from working around, the limitations of form and function supposedly imposed upon his limitless imagination in his various “Duck Books,” our anthropomorphic stand-ins have always been one of the very finest means by which skilled and inventive artists communicate largely-unspoken truths about ourselves to ourselves.

In that sense, then, Philadelphia-based cartoonist August Lipp’s late-2017 Revival House Press release Roopert carries on an already-proud tradition — but this 56-page oversized magazine (a real bargain at ten bucks, trust me), ingeniously presented as a mock line-ruled school composition book (on faux-yellow paper complete with “holes” along the side, no less), is no mere updating of tried-and-true tropes, nor is it yet another deconstruction-hidden-in-plain-sight. Rather, this is something wholly, entirely, at times even ecstatically new — main-lined right into our brains via a “delivery system” we’re all quite familiar with.

Subtitled “Miss Julienne’s 6th Grade Annual,” Lipp’s comic is deliberately and smartly “juvenile” in its execution, but the keen intelligence and wit behind it are evident from the moment we meet Roopert and Benji Bear (no relation, near as I can tell), Henrietta Hippo, Clyve Badger, Timothy Frog, Hannah Fox, Clarissa Crocodile, and the other students — as well as long-suffering faculty — of the most batshit-crazy elementary school you’ve ever seen. The guardrails are off from the outset here, and each subsequent plot contrivance that Lipp pulls out of the deep well-spring of his subconscious ups the disaster ante with unrestrained glee. The story starts with Miss Julienne telling the kids in her class about her summer trip to Honduras — and it ends with all of them (plus the principal and the art teacher) actually sailing there on a magically-grown ship extracted from the inside of a bottle.

At this point, I’m sure, you’ve got a million questions about how in the hell Lipp’s motley ensemble gets from “Point A” to “Point B,” but I’m not giving away a thing : what makes this book so much fun is how every page delivers multiple unexpected twists and turns, the haphazard surface trappings of the narrative and the art throwing a thick, heavy disguise over what is, in actuality, a highly intricate plot structure and a packed-to-the-gills visual extravaganza that encompasses everything from lamely-believable acronym posters to, believe it or not, a hat-tip to Steve Ditko. You want clever? Roopert is so clever it hurts — but don’t blink, or you’ll miss some minor detail, some blissfully spot-on background element, that gives away just how clever it really is.

Even the problematic elements in this comic are deliberately so : the character of Anthony Monkey, for instance, could be read to re-inforce the ugly racial stereotypes of “funny”books gone by, but like Moore and O’Neill’s Golliwog from The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the intention is clearly to “de-power” such imagery by pointing out its absolute absurdity right out in the open. The depiction of an overtly “human”-esque monkey flinging shit against walls won’t sit well with all readers, of course, and I most certainly respect those who will take exception to it — but this isn’t an echo of, say, the disturbingly casual racism of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, but rather an obvious acknowledgement and, crucially, refutation of it.

As for the one actual human in these pages, the aforementioned Miss Julienne, she’s the most hapless of all participants in the proceedings, but even then there’s no hint of tragedy in her “arc” : like everyone else, she’s called upon to go with the absurdist flow and somehow keep her head above water — literally, as it turns out. But by the time everyone’s survival skills are put to the test, the idea of a happy ending, whatever that may be, is already a given — Lipp gives Kurtzman, Crumb, or (hey, these guys again!) Moore and O’Neill a run for their money in terms of sheer denisty of material per panel, but it’s all in service of something inherently, dare I say it, happy. You just know that everything’s gonna work out great because, hey, the whole damn thing has been considerably more than great all along.

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Roopert is one of the most wholly inventive comics it’s likely ever been my pleasure to read, no exaggeration, and it can be ordered directly from August Lipp (who will personalize your copy on request) at https://augustlipp.tictail.com/product/roopertpreorder