“Proverbs Of Hell” : The Marriage Of Zenick And Blake

You literally never know what Jeff Zenick is going to come up with next, and that’s one of the most interest things about him : he’s an artist who never sits still or rests on his laurels, who never fails to find a new way to express himself via his portrait work. In recent years he’s turned his skilled eye and hand to reproducing criminal mugshots and vintage high school yearbooks, and now he’s trained his talents on a subject that would likely vex just about anyone : William Blake.

Well, okay, not Blake himself per se, but the 70 aphorisms included as part of his epic The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell, which have apprently wormed their way so deeply into Zenick’s mind that he’s literally been ruminating over how to approach this project for nearly 30 years, having first attempted to give it a go in truncated form as a mini comic way back in 1991. To say a lot of thought went into the just-released (and, as always, self-published) Proverbs Of Hell would, then, be a massive understatement indeed.

Zenick is probably channeling more than Blake here, though : he seems to have tapped into his inner Charles Burns pretty directly (and successfully) as well, his heavy black inks and stark approach to exaggeration, shading, and expression really kicking up into another gear in this ‘zine. The rotating handful of characters he’s depicting this time around appear to be in various states of distress both mental and physical, some of which would seem to bear direct correlation to the proverb their face appears beneath, but sometimes the connections are more oblique or intuited, and one is left wondering about not only the wisdom of Blake’s words, but the choices Zenick makes as an artist. It all makes for a heady experience, but fair warning : if you’re prone to a heroic self-image, this is gonna disabuse you of that goofy notion in a hurry.

Still, Zenick’s never been one for letting his readership off easy any more than Blake was, so there’s a fair amount of sympathetic resonance to be gleaned from every pairing of the former’s pictures with the latter’s words in these pages. This is portraiture that showcases the lost and the forlorn, absolutely, but whether or not that’s because these folks are considering Blake’s writing, or are simply reflective of it naturally is something I can’t quite nail down — and maybe I’m not supposed to be able to. Either point of view works, that much I know for certain, so no matter what Zenick’s intention is, he achieves it — and how often does a sentiment like that even make concrete sense?

And that brings us to another consistent strength of Zenick’s work : it’s interpretive on its face (pun only slightly intended), but it’s never deliberately oblique. He starts with a firm concept and executes it to the proverbial “T,” but his concerns, and subsequent approaches to expressing them, are inherently non-dictatorial. He never goes so far as to tell you what to think or how to analyze his creative output, but he’s never less than absolutely upfront at the same time. This belies a fair amount of confidence on Zenick’s part in his own abilities, sure, but it also shows tremendous faith in his readership, and in their ability to pick up what he’s throwing down. You never feel lost in a Zenick ‘zine, then, this one being no exception, but you literally never know what’s waiting for you on the next page, either — only that it will logically and aesthetically flow from what’s come before and into what’s coming next.

It could fairly be said, then, that there is a trajectory to be found in this work, although not necessarily a linear one. Each image tells a story in and of itself, but taken in succession and in total, a larger picture emerges : of a fallen humanity crumbling when faced with the intractable edifice of visionary insight, perhaps — or, if you prefer, of a fallen humanity that bears out the wisdom of said insight by dint of both their existence and their approach to it. Take your pick, or go with them both, it matters not — this ‘zine is pearls before swine either way. And I say that as one of the swine myself.

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

Proverbs Of Hell is available for $6.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half Distro at : https://www.spitandahalf.com/product/proverbs-of-hell-by-william-blake-and-jeff-zenick/

Review wrist check – Hamilton “Jazzmaster Viewmatic” riding a Lone Star Treasures ostrich leg leather strap in royal blue.

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

 

Mining The Past For Clues About The Present : Jeff Zenick’s “2016-1960”

Jeff Zenick’s art ‘zines are always an intriguing enigma, specializing as they do in portrait illustrations that tease out the essential truths of people, locales, and even eras with a kind of intuitive eye for what matters most — his heavy, thick line (often, it appears to this critic, rendered directly in ink, maybe even magic marker) accentuating the “macro” elements of a person’s facial features while downplaying, frequently even bypassing, the “micro” details that would benefit from, even require, a finer line. The result is a quietly breathtaking blend of “big picture” accuracy with singular expressionism, pictures of other people that are clearly and indisputably the product of one artist’s sensibilities.

What all this means is that Zenick is uniquely positioned to do something not too many can — tell a thematically and conceptually dense story while eschewing narrative altogether. He sells the scope of his ever-evolving project short in the introduction he pens for his latest, 2016-1960, a self-published selection of high school and college yearbook portraits covering the years mentioned and arranged in the reverse chronology the title suggests, but otherwise provides just the right sort of preamble to put readers in the frame of mind necessary to feel, as opposed to merely “understand,” his aims. And while the notion of sixty densely-packed pages of small illustrations might seem a bit much, in truth it’s just the right amount to really flesh out the overall social history of our country that the book represents.

It only takes a few pages to start really getting into a “groove” as a reader with what’s happening, as subtle differences in people’s appearances become more pronounced over time and regional genetic traits begin to manifest themselves fully to the eye. By the halfway point of the book you can pretty well guess which part of the country is being featured on a given page without looking at the captions Zenick provides at the bottom, but his commitment to accuracy is nonetheless appreciated, and I can only imagine the reaction a person whose “picture from way back when” would have if they found themselves in here. A mix of delight and genuine surprise, most likely, with maybe a little bit of embarrassment at their hairstyle or choice in eyewear?

In any case, a kind of rhythm really does settle in as you pore through the contents herein, and a clear through-line from the present (-ish) to the past comes to the fore that goes beyond what the calendar year tells, and even what surface-level modes of dress and appearance belie — the people come to reflect the times and vice-versa, and what has remained the same stands out every bit as much as what’s changed. Very little about society as a whole circa 2016 resembled society as a whole circa 1960, it’s true, but individual people? Maybe we have more in common with folks from previous generations than we think.

Clearly, this modest ‘zine provides fodder for a lot of reflection, and rewards the act of spending time with it, but it would be a mistake to believe that it’s an inherently nostalgic piece of work, even if at first it likely sounds it. Rather, it’s a holistic and comprehensive visual representation of both who we were and who we are, and consequently offers a springboard for the imagination to visualize where we’re going. Only the most immediate and unmediated art has the capability to engender such a complex series of responses, and it helps an awful lot that Zenick seems to draw every bit as much with his heart as he does with his hand and his brain — hell, if you want to pull off something like this and really do it right, all three have to equally engaged.

If, then, I might be so bold as to offer a piece of advice to prospective readers beyond a simple “hell yes you should buy this,” I would suggest settling in with a cup of coffee or your warm beverage of choice and make an evening of this book. Let it wash over and through you, pore over each image, and understand that a portrait is an image not just of a person, but of the life they’ve lived and the future they are (or were, as the case may be) dreaming of. It’s true for each of us, and it’s true for the sum total of all of us.

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

2016-1960 is available for $6.00 from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/2016-1960-by-jeff-zenick/

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and music for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my ongoing work, so do please take a moment to give it a look at https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

 

Four Color Apocalypse 2018 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

And so we come to the most unusual of our year-end “Top 10” lists, this one looking at my ten favorite “special mentions” of 2018, and I suppose that some explanation is in order : simply put, a lot of great publications that came out of the comics world this year were, for lack of a better term (at least a better term than I can think of, you may fare better) “comics-adjacent,” in that they were by  cartoonists, but took the form of illustrated short stories, collections of drawings, etc. Also included in this category are publications about comics — ‘zines, scholarly works, and the like. Now then, with those ground rules in place —

10. Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South By Jeff Zenick (Self-Published) – One of the better pure illustrators working today, and one whose work consistently flies under the radar, Zenick’s collection of drawings based on mug shots found online of folks run afoul of the law below the Mason-Dixon line is his most conceptually “tight” offering to date, and captures the essential character of the desperation that leads to/ends in criminal activity far better than “mere” photographs ever could. A sobering, straight-forward look at the underbelly of society that most would rather pretend doesn’t exist.

9. Journal Of Smack (2018) By Andrea Lukic (Self-Published) – Lukic’s semi-regular journals are always fascinating, but her latest is like a “found object” from another time, place, and possibly even dimension, ostensibly telling an illustrated vampire story that circles back in on itself frequently — but what’s really going on here is something much deeper and more profound : preconceptions of what words and pictures can and even should do in juxtaposition are challenged head-on, shaken up, and re-arranged in new, unique, and even unsettling ways that are hard to explain, but undeniably powerful and instantly memorable.

8. Folrath #2 By Zak Sally (Self-Published) – The second installment in Sally’s ongoing prose memoir of his early-’90s “punk years” is no mere exercise in nostalgia for its own sake, but rather a gripping and evocative attempt to reconcile what one’s part even means — and how it never really leaves us, even when we think we’ve left it behind. The publication format here is also innovative and aesthetically pleasing, using riso printing and an “old-school” typeface to give the proceedings a wistful look that amplifies the tone of the writing.

7. But Is It — Comic Aht? Edited By Austin English (Domino Books) – Oh, hell yes ! The newsprint comics ‘zine had been in desperate need of a comeback for some time, and English is just the guy to resuscitate it. A thorough and comprehensive interview with the great Megan Kelso and an examination of the Mexican comics underground by Ines Estrada are the standout features to this critic, but the other reviews and articles are all tops, too. A true and obvious labor of love that you’re guaranteed, in turn, to love yourself.

6. Dog Nurse By Margot Ferrick (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of those rare “total packages” that has it all in terms of both form and content, Ferrick’s mysteriously heartwarming tale of a precocious but alienated child and her hired caretaker’s attempts to reach an understanding with her is lavishly illustrated, but equally lavishly presented between fastened hard covers on rich, French-fold pages. Well and truly stunning in every perspective.

5. Nocturne By Tara Booth (2dcloud) – Perhaps the closest thing on this list to a traditional “comics” narrative, Booth’s undeniably charming tale of a consequential evening in the life of a dominatrix, told by means of sequentially-arranged gouache paintings, is incredibly fluid, to be sure, but also far more conceptually dense than it may appear at first glance, incorporating themes of sexual identity, communal living, complex (and perhaps unhealthy) relationships with food, and body-image acceptance into a non-alienating, visually literate, wordless narrative. Some books leave a mark — this one casts a spell.

4. Accursed By Daria Tessler (Perfectly Acceptable Press) – One of the most gorgeous riso publications ever made, Tessler’s mind-bending visual interpretations of accompanying ancient Greek and Roman curses is a rich exploration of the timelessness of the urge for revenge rendered in a gorgeous and vibrant color palette that literally makes the already-“trippy” images achieve a kind of near-sentience as they draw you into a world unlike any other ever depicted. The die-cut cover with embossed ink and fold-out center spread will blow your mind if the contents haven’t already.

3. John, Dear By Laura Lannes (Retrofit/Big Planet) – A harrowing tale of emotional and psychological abuse manifesting itself outwardly in the form of physical deformation and mutation, Lannes has taken “body horror” to a whole new level by infusing it with social relevance — and her richly-black graphite renderings will not only take your breath away, but literally suck it right out of your body. I defy you to read this and not feel absolutely hollowed out afterwards.

2. The Woman Minotaur By Sara L. Jackson (Self-Published) – Sumptuous, beautiful, and horrifying all at once, Jackson’s painted short story revolving around themes of parental abandonment and alienation is as emotionally and psychologically charged as it is visually ambitious. A supremely self-assured work that establishes its own rules with fearlessness, integrity, and ingenuity, this is an entirely new form of artist-to-audience communication that goes right for the heart and twists it mercilessly.

1. Why Art? By Eleanor Davis (Fantagraphics) – Asking, and answering, its titular question by means more allegorical than expository, Davis’ deceptively “simple” illustrations and sparse, economic narrative shave off anything and everything superfluous and consequently “mainline” her story directly into readers’ metaphorical veins with an immediacy so nonchalantly assumed that its sheer power is immediately and automatically taken as a given.  A work of singular and undeniable genius — and that’s a word you will only catch me using when it’s not only warranted, but frankly inescapable. Davis makes her strongest argument yet for being the cartoonist laureate of our times.

So there you have it — ten great comics that weren’t exactly comics. Next up is our final list of the year, focusing on original graphic novels. That goes up tomorrow night, and may surprise you just as much for what isn’t included on it as what is. How’s that for a teaser?

Portraits In Everyday Hopelessness : “Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South”

It’s hot down south.

Hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk, they tell me. Hot enough to melt the ice pack wrapped around little Jimmy Bob’s broken shoulder. Hot enough to send those armadillos scurrying across the blacktop really fast. Hot enough to make you do something crazy.

Veteran cartoonist Jeff Zenick, who’s made a habit of turning up in interesting places doing very interesting things when you least expect it, is probably the perfect person to capture the essence of what makes those run afoul of the law in Dixie do what they do simply because his astute observational skills not only capture every detail of a person’s face, but also what informs every line, every wrinkle, every cut, every bruise on it — in short, he draws real people that have been through some real shit. There is a tinge, I suppose, of the exotic and forbidden that is automatically attached to those with the sheer “fuck you” temerity to step outside society’s often-arbitrary moral and legal code, those who take it upon themselves to do what they can — and, in many cases, must to survive — simply because the means, motive, and opportunity are there, and yet in Zenick’s new comic/’zine, Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South : Drawings From Online Mugshots, what’s most striking about the collection of scofflaws contained within is how positively normal most of them look. Why, they could be your neighbors. Your friends. Your family.

Which isn’t to say that most of them don’t appear to have had a damn rough night, of course — but you get hauled in by a backwater sheriff’s deputy after you’ve been out on a bender and see how good you look. Zenick sets the tone on page one with a rather bleakly poetic introduction that cuts to the core of this latest project, but from then on it’s strictly six illustrations of chumps down on their luck per page, all of whom ended up in the pokey in places like Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. We keep hearing about this “New South” all the time, but if it exists (and remember, the entire south voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump, so that’s a mighty big “if”), the progress it supposedly has brought with it has passed plenty of folks by — and they’re well represented in this collection.

To be sure, we’ve got people locked up on serious charges like domestic assault, stalking, illegal possession of firearms, and other major felonies in here. One guy is in for murder. DUIs are common. But a lot of the “criminals” herein got stuck with bullshit raps : vagrancy, illegally tinted car windows, failure to illuminate license plates. One poor schmuck is simply charged with being a “persistent felony offender,” with no specifics offered. One was arrested for “impersonating a police officer,” which in any just world would earn them a medal for ingenuity. Yet everyone from the accused killer to the harmless hobo seems to have one thing in common : desperation.

It’s a quiet, understated, or even disguised desperation, to be sure, but it’s positively ubiquitous, palpable. It’s hiding behind the nonchalant “nothing I haven’t been through before” tough-guy stare. It’s expressed as bewilderment and confusion on those whose expressions say “how did I end up here when the day started like any other?” It’s buried under veritable layers of chemically-induced haze among those too drunk, high, or both to even know where the hell they are — but it’s always there. It is, in a very real sense, the story behind the story. Behind all these stories.

Which may be a funny thing to say when you consider there is no actual “narrative” on offer here in the traditional sense : no character or characters, plural, that we follow from point A to point B. No conflict, no drama, no plots or subplots. Whatever was going to happen to everyone here already has happened. And whatever that was is written all over their faces. So while I’m pretty resistant, personally, to the idea of mugshots being posted online from a sheer civil liberties perspective — shit, you’re still supposed to be innocent until proven guilty in this country — when an artist of Zenick’s caliber comes along and finds a way to bring out more humanity in his illustrations than actual photos ever could? I say let the jurors see them, as well.

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

Troubled Mankind Of The Modern South is self-published by Jeff Zenick and available for a measly five bucks from John Porcellino’s Spit And A Half distro — which, I confess, is where I poached all the scans for this review from because I couldn’t find any images of the book anywhere else. I don’t know if that’s a crime — even in Texas — but I do know you can, and should, click the following link and order it :http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/troubled-mankind-of-the-modern-south-by-jeff-zenick/