Any comic that sticks in your brain for 23 years surely must have done something right, would you not agree?
Not that the images and ideas put forth in Jess (then Jeff) Johnson’s short-lived 1994 Fantagraphics series, Nurture The Devil, have always been a welcome guest in my mind. A heady and disorienting mix of body horror, psychosexual pathology, gender identity confusion, and barely-restrained confessional, this largely-(and sadly-) forgotten late entry into the “single-creator anthology” mini-boom that was already starting to see its ranks thinned considerably by the time these three issues expelled themselves from the darkest corners of their creator’s subconscious in 1994 leaves a stain as indelible as the deeply-saturated inks that every panel on their pages is awash — hell, drowning — in. I don’t know of another way to put it : some things you just can’t “un-see.”
Knowing what we know now about Johnson’s tragically short life, which ended in 2016 at the age of 45, the contents of Nurture The Devil seem, I suppose, less surprising than they did at the time of their publication, when most readers (myself included) went into the series more or less “blind” : Jeff had a rocky relationship with a terminally ill woman whom he eventually married and even more eventually divorced after transitioning to become Jessica in 2002, and in subsequent years found her creative energies sapped considerably due to a combination of extreme depression following her ex-wife’s 2003 death and , she believed, her estrogen intake. In 2010 she swapped out the estrogen for testosterone (and seemed to regain her creativity with a vengeance, subsequently self-publishing several collections of prose and comics) and thereafter referred to herself as Jess in person, J.K. in print. She described her state during what would prove to be the last years of her life as one of “genderwhatever,” and even titled one of her print essays from this period “Gender Is For Other People.”
It also seems that Johnson moved around a lot. His early childhood was spent in Ohio, but his formative years took place in Marietta, Georgia — right down the street, in fact, from the loathsome Newt Gingrich — and he sayed in-state to attend the University of Georgia in Athens, where he self-published his first mini-comics. Those were strong and idiosyncratic enough to attract the attention of several publishers —Johnson’s work both pre-and-post-Nurture The Devil was a relatively frequent feature in anthologies ranging from Blab! to Buzzard to Zero Zero to Dirty Stories, among others — and in 1995 he moved to Seattle to work in the Fantagraphics warehouse and, later, their production department. In 1997 he headed back east to Atlanta to get married, and remained there throughout her (first) gender transition before packing up for New York in 2004, only to return to Atlanta again, for good this time, in 2008. So, yeah, transience and impermanence featured heavily throughout her body of work, Nurture The Devil being no exception.
Evidence also suggests that Johnson’s life was mostly spent on the economic margins. Her employment history as detailed in her unpublished mixed-media memoir Negative Space features lengthy stints as a dishwasher and self-employed sex worker, among other gigs, and prior to marriage he-at-the-time lived in a $50-a-month rented room in the back of a trailer while saving for an engagement ring. Clearly, Johnson knew all about the realities of the “starving artist” life that is, for some inexplicable reason, still romanticized by the pampered progeny of the upper classes.
For all these reasons and probably any number of others, security is in short supply in Nurture The Devil — the metaphorical ground beneath our feet is unsteady from the outset, both in the shorter, stand-alone strips, where autobiography often transitions, without notice, into dark absurdist sexual dysfunction, and most notably in The Garden, the long-form story that forms the “spine” of all three issues and, indeed, takes up all of the last one save for its covers.
To simply describe “The Garden” as unforgettable, while true, is nevertheless a tremendous disservice — in point of fact this is just out-and-out unclean stuff, and trust me when I say I mean that as a compliment. Charged with what can most fairly be categorized as “negative sex energy” throughout, this sordid yarn about a family’s psychological and even physical descent following the apparent death of its matriarchal “leader” is rife with the sort of combustible material that in some hands would come of as sleazy, or at the very least prurient, but here just (and justly) feels painful in the extreme : incest, forced feminization, ritualized humiliation, torture, voyeurism, degradation, orgasm prolonging and denial, the Madonna/whore complex, and both male and female sexual supremacy are all present and accounted for within these pages, and no matter how many times you read the thing, you’re still going to feel like you need a good, cold shower when you’re done.
The art does nothing to lessen the sheer pressure upon readers’ minds, either : while betraying a little bit of its influences at the margins (Richard Sala’s expertly-placed squiggles, Penny Moran Van Horn’s woodcut-style thick, dark inks), it’s probably safe to say you’ve seen nothing else quite like Johnson’s murky, fetishistic, downright oppressive visuals. Faces are etched with fluctuating and abstract patterns, bodies flow into and out of the ever-present blackness surrounding them, tribal-influenced designs seem to take up actual, physical space in the world that the uniformly-unlikable characters inhabit. Bone-chilling, I think, might be the exact phrase I’m looking for.
The Sunders family — domineering sister/substitute-mother Lily, ineffectual, cuckolded-by-default father Edward, tormented-and-emasculated brother Paul, and headstrong-but-repressed brother Marcus — are suffocated on all sides by a void that threatens to swallow them whole, but escape from it is impossible because it’s ultimately one of their own making. Their garden functions as an outward manifestation of their inner decay, but it’s hard to say which is more frightening — the terrors they can see with their eyes open, or the ones that consume their minds when they’re closed. If Eden were hell and that hell was constructed by its own denizens, who knows? Maybe this would be the first chapter of the Bible.
Landscapes shift throughout “The Garden,” as do modes of existence and power dynamics — Paul becoming a eunuch and then becoming Paula is only the most obvious example, but when two people who are “supposed” to be dead turn out to be very much alive (I told you permanence was nowhere to be found here), all is thrown asunder even though it was as far from “stable” as one could possibly imagine from the word “go.” Fear of one’s body, fear of one’s place within the group dynamic, fear of one’s fantasies (those copped to and those anything but), fear of one’s parents, fear of one’s spouse, fear of one’s human needs, fear of one’s capacity for betrayal, fear of one’s fears — shit, all that comes into play before events boil over here, and I absolutely defy you to read this story straight-though without having to put it down for at least 10 or 15 minutes on more than one occasion.
Hell, if you were to decide to walk away from it altogether I wouldn’t blame you — but I would think you were missing out on the chance to see an admittedly noxious, perhaps even poisonous, flower come into bloom. Think of the most shocking and disquieting work of, say, an artist like Mike Diana, marry it to an actual, and highly personal, philosophical agenda, and you’ll have some inkling of what Johnson was able to achieve with this comic.
The Comics Journal ran a succinct but highly respectful memorial to Johnson at http://www.tcj.com/jess-johnson-1970-2016/ , and her self-published books are still available (I particularly recommend Sad Brat, Bad Star, a collection of her early mini-comcis work complete with a wealth of accompanying essay material) at http://jessjohnson1970.wixsite.com/matterhorn , but Nurture The Devil has, sadly, never been collected (yet). So start hunting through those back-issue bargain bins now, I guess — if you come across a box that seems to be emitting a cry for help with enough force to carve out your soul, throw it on the floor, and leave you a hollowed, empty shell of your former self, odds are that’s where you’ll find it.