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/



This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/1/2017 – 10/7/2017

Okay, look, who are we kidding? Fantagraphics’ Now #1 is the “big story” in comics this week, as well it should be, but I’m still cobbling my various and sundry thoughts on that one together for a comprehensive review that I should have ready in the next few days. Until then, though, let’s take a quick look at a handful of other items new on shelves and/or in my mailbox that grabbed my attention, for good or ill, this week —

Portrait is a self-published collection of strips by Simon Hanselmann that ran as part of his “Truth Zone” (or TZ, if you prefer) webcomics series. The initial printing sold out pretty quickly and I missed out on it, but I ordered one up pronto when word got out that he was headed back to press (or, more likely, Kinko’s) with it. Megg. Mogg, and Owl take aim at the so-called “alternative comix scene” in these pages, and while it’s all reasonably entertaining, especially if you have — uhhhmmm — “concerns” with the targets of  Hanselmann’s sharp but (mostly?) quasi-friendly jabs, it’s also true to say that a fair amount of the “backstory” you need to make head or tail of some of this shit took place on various social media platforms, most notably twitter, some time ago, so after awhile it starts to feel not only vaguely incestuous, but also a bit arcane. I laughed out loud a few times, and that’s worth something I suppose, but if you’re expecting anything with a passing semblance of actual critique to it, you’re bound to feel more than a bit disappointed, as this is mostly just petty “industry” gossip with punchlines at the end. Kinda fun, but somebody from the small press “community” pointing out how ridiculous everybody else involved with it is really isn’t enough to sustain interest for even the short length of this publication, and while Kim O’Connor spent a lot of time in her (well-written as always) review of this comic wondering whether or not it counts as “art,” it’s safe to say that Hanselmann himself clearly believes he’s raised “snark” to an art from, regardless of what any of the rest of us think.  Extra points for bravado there, I suppose, but after a couple of strips were read I actively began failing to see the point. Probably of interest to Hanselmann completists only.

The Third Remedy is a new mini-comic by Chester Brown offered as a premium to his Patreon subscribers (side note, Brown offers great value for your monthly contributions to his continued survival) that provides a pretty solid case study in the “art” of detournement or, as Bob Levin at TCJ would have it, “recontextualization,” given that it takes a pre-existing Carl Barks “Duck” story from Walt Disney’s Comics And Stories  issue number 101 (published in 1949) and swaps out Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie with “Golden Age” iterations of Batman and Robin and Daisy with Batgirl,  while leaving  the one-off character of Mrs. Gobblechin as is. It’s interesting, to be sure, and superbly-drawn as you’d expect, but doesn’t aspire to, much less achieve, anything beyond being a fun little curiosity. There’s no harm in that by any means, and the insertion of the “Bat-family” into the proceedings has the probably-intended effect of pointing out not just their strained sexlessness but perhaps even Batman’s fear of both sex and feminization, but some of the brilliance of Barks’ original story is — more by dint of necessity than anything else — lost in translation, and so I have to wonder if people who are reasonably “fluent” in the world of comics really aren’t and/or shouldn’t be the “target audience” for this self-published little “floppy,” especially since Brown doesn’t credit himself anywhere in it. I liked it, I appreciated receiving it, I read it a couple of times, and that’s all fine and dandy — but to be honest, this might have more of an “impact” if you just found it randomly on a bus-stop bench or something and didn’t know what the hell to make of it.  In the aforementioned TCJ piece, in fact,  Brown remarks that he “like(s) the idea of people encountering it and wondering what it is.” He also says that he’s considered printing some more off and leaving them in various locations around town, and that sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Slots #1 marks the start of a new series (or mini-series, truthfully I don’t know which) from Image (specifically Robert Kirman’s Skybound imprint, so it’s not a creator-owned work — booooo!) by writer/artist Dan Panosian that looked, at least at first glance, like the kind of thing I probably wouldn’t bother with, but I caught a few preview pages at the back of some comic or other (hey, I guess that does actually work!) and found myself sufficiently charmed/impressed to give it a go, and whaddya know? This was actually a whole hell of a lot of fun. Panosian’s story about a washed-up former prizefighter turned small-time scam artist who returns to Vegas to help a former flame and settle some old scores is, admittedly, the kind of thing we’ve seen a thousand times before in the movies, but it’s got one of those “likable scumbag” protagonists, the dialogue ranges from spot-on to sparkling, the broad-stroke characterization hits the mark, and Panosian’s
“scratchy,” free-flowing art is a lot of fun to look at. The Kurtzman-esque lettering he uses for his chapter headers is another nice little plus and rounds out a package that I have no hesitation in calling the most pleasant out-of-left-field surprise in the last few months.

Finally, in the spirit of not ignoring “The Big Two” entirely, we come to Punisher Max : The Platoon #1, which marks the return of both the Max Comics imprint from Marvel (we’ll see how long that lasts) and Garth Ennis to the character that he’s arguably most closely associated with (this is the point at which hard-core Jesse Custer and John Constantine fans put out a contract on my head, I’m sure — relax, I did say “arguably”). Honestly, though, I could give a shit who’s writing Punisher comics, but I’ll take a chance on pretty much any Garth Ennis combat yarn, and given that this is all about Frank Castle’s Vietnam days (is it true he’s been “retconned” into an Iraq or Afghanistan vet now?), I was sold on it going in. Smart move, as it turns out, since this one looks like another winner. Ennis pulls no punches in terms of showing both how hopelessly fucked the situation was over there and how openly most G.I.’s admitted it, and to say that Castle has wandered into a situation where the command structure has “broken down” would be an understatement — it’s downright blown off entirely by the grunts doing the killing and the dying. So, yeah, he’s got his work cut out for him. Meanwhile, in the present day, a reporter tracking down the titular platoon’s surviving members promises a bit of mystery in that it’s nowhere near certain where said journo is getting their information from. Goran Parlov’s art is solidly competent if far from memorable, and some nicely subtle visual cues to the late, great Steve Dillon come off as both entirely unforced and respectful. He probably would have loved to have drawn this comic, and I damn sure enjoyed reading it.

Okay, I think that’ll about do it for this week’s wrap-up, thanks for the kind words everyone offered both here, via email, and most especially on social media last week — I’m no Joe McCulloch by any stretch of the imagination, but with the entirely understandable demise of his column, some kind of semi-omniscient look at what’s new in the world of comics every week with at least a vague hint of a “consumer-centric” approach to it is sadly missing in the nominally “indie”  murky backwater of the funnybook world , don’cha think? And given that it doesn’t get much more murky or much more backwater-y than this little-trafficked blog, I figure I’ll keep doing my part to tell you what might be worth spending your money on until folks either tell me to find something better to do with my time or start finding something better to do with theirs.

Submerged “Underwater” : Deciphering Chester Brown’s Abandoned Opus

Unfinished works have dotted the comic-book landscape probably for as long as the medium has existed — how many Golden Age characters were one-off experiments, never to return? — but more often than not in recent years, good, old-fashioned cancellation was the most common reason stories were either never concluded, or wrapped up in considerably truncated fashion. For years, of course, the “Holy Grail” of incomplete stories was Kirby’s Fourth World saga, but eventually Jack was able to give readers a finale of sorts with The Hunger Dogs — even if it was considerably different to whatever he would have produced had his books been allowed to lead their natural “life spans” — but the advent of creator-owned titles has given rise to a different type of “undone” comic : those that are abandoned not by corporate-dictated necessity, but by choice.

Probably the most (in)famous of these is Alan Moore’s Big Numbers, which sent two artists running away from it screaming before The Bearded One finally realized that maybe completing the series wasn’t worth the price being exacted on his collaborators’ mental health, but even there a relatively concrete idea of where the story was headed and what it was going to be about isn’t hard to come by given Moore’s meticulously-detailed script notes and the information he’d freely divulged about the project in various contemporaneous interviews. In short, we have a pretty solid idea of where it was headed, even if we’re less certain about the particulars of how it was going to get there.  A plan existed, if only somebody could have withstood the experience of having to draw the damn thing.

A considerably more interesting — and frankly more mysterious — example of a major work walked away from, at least to my mind, is to be found in Chester Brown’s Underwater, the follow-up series to the cartoonist’s acclaimed Yummy Fur  that was published by Drawn + Quarterly and ran from 1994 to 1997 before being first “put on hold” (Brown intimating at the time that he’d get back to it after finishing Louis Riel) and then given up on altogether. It lasted a total of eleven issues prior to Brown’s attentions being shifted elsewhere, and while I can certainly understand why figuring out a way forward with it was probably a daunting task almost from its inception, an artist doesn’t usually end up in a quandary of the “should I stay or should I go?” variety if they’re doing something dull and inconsequential — which, I suppose, is my way of saying that Underwater, while a bit of an intentional mess, is most assuredly an interesting and ambitious one.

Hell, maybe it’s too ambitious — even though, at least on paper, the story appears as if it should be simple : after all, it’s just about an infant girl growing up, and most of the events detailed in its pages are of the highly mundane variety (eating, playing in the crib, riding in a car, first exposure to television, playing with toys, learning to put on a coat, first exposure to comic strips, visits to the homes of relatives, first day at pre-school, etc.), so what could be so tricky about that?

Well, for one thing, the world that our central character (I hesitate to use the term protagonist), Kupifam (who’s actually one of a pair of twins, but the other, Juz, is at the very least considerably less precocious than her sister, if not developmentally stunted altogether), inhabits is considerably different to our own — the beings who inhabit it don’t appear to be human so much as proto-Shrek ogres or something — with societal norms, institutions, and rules that are only vaguely recognizable, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Considerably more groundbreaking, and potentially problematic for those who hold fast to the structures of conventional narrative, is the fact that the entire story is presented from Kupifam’s point of view, and while that brings with it a wealth of storytelling possibilities, it also engenders a number of “deal-breakers” that more than likely sent a good few readers heading for the exits in the fairly early going. See, for example, what you can make of this :

Oh, sure, over time the apparent gibberish begins to make more sense — Brown admits in an early letter column (a later one would feature correspondence from none other than the “real” Patch Adams, prior to his unconventional approach to medicine being mythologized on the silver screen by the late, great Robin Williams, albeit in not exactly one of his best films) that what he refers to as “Underwaterese” is more or less entirely decipherable, and if you read all the issues in one go that definitely proves to be the case even before Kupifam’s increasing awareness/consciousness begins to “settle down” to the point where she’s hearing/processing things in recognizable English —but her nascent ability to interpret the events going on around her makes for a difficult, if ultimately rewarding, reading experience even after you’ve done the Finnegans Wake thing and more or less wrapped your head around the linguistic “games” being played here. Dreaming and conscious reality are presented with equal weight in this comic — as is almost certainly the case in the infant mind — and often blend together with no clear delineation between the two so that multiple figures merge into one, bodies (most particularly Kupifam’s own) float, limbs penetrate through solid objects, etc. One particularly memorable sequence, at the beginning of issue three, even features Kupifam being eaten by her father before walking up a staircase inside his mouth, emerging giant-sized into a room, and then waking up in her crib. Remember what they say — “to a kid, everything is real.”

To the extent that you can find other analyses of this series online — and trust me when I say this is probably already the most lengthy — comparisons to the films of David Lynch are more or less inevitable, but I think the same common error is made in the interpretations of both : sure, saying something along the lines of “this is like Eraserhead if it was told from the baby’s viewpoint” is natural enough, but at some point anybody saying that is most likely going to refer to both Brown and Lynch’s work as being “surrealistic,” and I’m sorry, but that’s simply not the case. What Underwater has in common with Lynch in general, and with Eraserhead in particular, is that both are impressionistic works, and that any sense of the “surreal” that they impart is an end result of that impressionist ethos. Things only “don’t make sense” because the filter through which they are presented is so inherently alien to us — which is a little bit ironic, I suppose, in that this comic is probably the most authentic presentation of how we all saw the world when we were little kids that anyone’s ever attempted — but to call it “surreal” is to mistake an outcome for the process by which it’s achieved.

Artistically, Brown is in fine form throughout this series, and makes so many well-timed transitions — some subtle, some jarring — as it progresses that the mind very nearly reels : the first four issues are presented in the visual style that he had adopted post – Ed The Happy Clown in Yummy Fur that saw intuitively-placed and -sized panels juxtaposed against stark, black pages, then from issues five through nine the backgrounds become a neutral gray and most pages settle into a grid-free six-panel presentation, and finally, numbers ten and eleven revert and/or evolve into “old-school” six-panel grids that take up more or less the whole of the newly- white pages they are presented on, with each “new look” both signalling and augmenting developments in Kupifam’s increasingly-solidifying awareness of consensus “reality.” By both definition and default this means that the earlier issues are more visually interesting and unpredictable than the later ones (particularly the last two), but that’s also just a depressing fact of life : the more our consciousness develops, the less absolutely singular is our worldview. We become cognizant of what’s “real” and what “isn’t,” and there’s probably a fair amount of, for lack of a better term, magic that’s lost along the way as we realize we are part of a larger world that exists entirely apart from our perception of it. Damn, but I’d give anything to see the world through the eyes of an infant — or even an animal — for just one day before I depart this Earth. It’s gotta be an experience that even the best psychedelics can’t hope to duplicate.

Another superb thing that Brown’s able to communicate entirely by visual means is the physical growth and development of both Kupifam and Juz. Obviously, time works entirely differently by this book’s internal logic, and while these eleven issues probably encompass the first three or four years of these girls’ lives, each successive comic picks up more or less precisely where the last one left off (lending weight to my own pet theory that these may be the stitched-together remembrances of her childhood of a much older Kupifam, perhaps even as she’s approaching the end of her life), and while the twins are growing and changing, you really don’t even notice it until you flip back through several installments, so smooth and natural is the delineation of their developing bodies. Again, it’s tempting to say that not much is happening in this comic — and it’s not always easy to intuit what is going on (for my money, no matter how many times I read it, I still can’t decide if Kupifam’s dad is forcibly removing her from school over the course of issues ten and eleven or if he’s simply picking her up at the end of the day and the extra “drama” presented is all a function of her perception, for example) — but at the same time, in a very real sense, everything is going on, we’re just not given an easy way to interpret or process any of it. Brown has done most of the work, sure,  but damn if somehow a fair amount of the heavy lifting isn’t left up to us.

The series stops — it can’t fairly be said to “end” — on a note that I don’t really find much more curious than any number of others, with Kupifam being slightly freaked out by a mask she sees in the apartment of presumed stranger who happens to live next door to somebody her father has gotten into an altercation of some sort or other with, so why Brown threw in the towel at this point is every bit as unknowable-to-anyone-other-than-him than where he would have taken things if Louis Riel, and later non-serialized works such as Paying For It and its literally spiritual successor, Mary Wept Over The Feet Of Jesus, hadn’t proven to be of greater interest to him, but Underwater certainly gave — and continues to give — us plenty to mull over even absent a resolution (hell, we probably didn’t even reach the middle), and the fact that most of its chapters were presented with absolutely gorgeous and instantly memorable covers and were appended with continued installments of Brown’s superb (and equally aborted) adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew ensured that each issue certainly gave readers their money’s worth, despite D+Q’s constantly-fluctuating cover prices at the time. Sure, the entire project will probably always be remembered as something of an enticing enigma, but who knows? Given its subject matter, dreamlike structure, and necessarily-unquantifiable series of abstractions, chances are pretty good that’s how it would have ended up being viewed even if Brown had been able to decide how he wanted to continue — and ultimately finish — it.