What’s That? “Whisnant”!

No matter how you look at it, you don’t know how to look at Max Huffman — nor what to expect from him. Which means, of course, that he’s unquestionably one of the most interesting and surprising of the true auteurs working in comics today — but even with that in mind, his latest self-published mini, Whisnant #1, is something well and truly out of left field.

As deliberately and overtly “cartoony” as anything Huffman has done, this thing reminded me more than a bit of Bud Blake’s old syndicated strip Tiger on the margins — only it’s actually, ya know, good, and has something to say about actual existential concerns. I think, at any rate.

So, what have we got here? Cubism, a black-and-white protagonist in a full-color world who inexplicably becomes full-color himself, an ice cream truck that sells gems and crystals, “people” that aren’t people, family dysfunction, externalized angst, nosy neighbors, fake questions from non-existent readers, what appears to be a robot with what appears to be a fish tank atop its head, collapsible vehicles, a disposable evil super-villain general who looks like he stepped out of a Ben Marra comic, mail delivery problems, a turtle that lives in a storm drain — and no yard sale, no matter what the cover says. I’d be lying if I said it all made sense in the end, but then, piecing together how it just might is part of the fun.

And I really can’t stress that enough : this comic is fun. Most of that is down to the sheer, unfettered imagination that comes through in every panel on every page, but a lot of it is just intuitive — on the part of both artist and reader. The cover shows Whisnant himself with the weight of the world literally on his shoulders, and though none of the entirely random events that happen around and to him are necessarily all that consequential, whether taken either individually or in total, you can’t help but feels his burden is damn heavy indeed — even if that burden is, in actuality, largely Huffman’s, as it’s up to him to pull one rabbit after another out of his hat. Fortunately, he makes the act of coming up with crazy shit look effortless, and with a delicious paradox like that at its core, how can this mini be anything less than kinda sorta sensational?

Easy answer : it can’t, so don’t even worry. You know you’re in good hands here, no matter how mercilessly (and I mean that in a good way) those hands are set about the task of shaking up your perceptions. It’s one thing to never know what’s coming around the corner, yeah, but what Huffman is doing here is something far more ambitious, if no less playful : he’s crafting a work that doesn’t clue you in as to where you stand in relation to or within it, a puzzle-box with no solution or final shape, an amorphous and evolving and maybe even metaphorically gelatinous thing that seeks to confound not in an adversarial fashion, but an inherently inviting one — come on in, it’s a crazy ride!

And a crazy ride for its own sake is one I’m absolutely never averse to giving a go. If you’re of the same general disposition, you’d be a damn fool to pass on what will surely be one of the best times you’ll have reading — and wondering about — a comic this year.

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Whisnant #1 is available for $6.00 from Austin English’s Domino Books distro at http://dominobooks.org/whisnant.html

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 politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my ongoing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Getting Down With “Funky Dianetics”

Sometimes a comic’s format is so utterly unique that it’s worth commenting on in and of itself — and may even raise it a notch or two in any given critic’s estimation. It shouldn’t, I suppose, be that way — the quality of the story and art really ought to be all that matters, in theory — but what if the publication in question is so innovative in terms of its physical presentation that said presentation becomes an integral aspect of the art itself?

This is particularly true in the case of a mini, where a limited number of pages necessarily makes the manner in which those pages are delivered to readers really stand out, for good or ill. Which brings us, an unforgivable two paragraphs in, to Max Huffman’s latest self-published mini, the intriguingly-titled Funky Dianetics.

This attractive riso-printed number that rolled off the presses in November of 2018 features two short “collections” of Huffman’s popular “I’m Good” gag strip — primarily concerned with mundane day-to-day activities such as work and commuting to and from it filtered through a pleasingly absurdist lens — sandwiched around a Jack T. Chick-style tract entitled “Big Drink” that adopts a strikingly different tone as it spins its yarn about alienation and isolation in small-town America, the end result being a very deliberate study in contrasts on just about every level from the narrative to the artistic to the thematic.

All of which means that we’re talking about a comic that punches well above its weight class, a sum total of 20 pages leaving a far more distinctive imprint upon a reader’s memory than its brevity would, at least at first glance, seem to allow for. That’s ingenious, to be sure, but it also means that the content itself needs to match the ingenuity of its format.

Fortunately, of course, we’re talking about Max Huffman here — a guy who’s comfortable adopting just about any style in service of his aesthetic and storytelling goals. The remarkable thing about his approach, though, is how undeniably intuitive his choices are, how pitch-perfect yet free of any sort of calculation, much less any inherent cynicism. A strong presentation backed up by strong cartooning in a couple of different styles? That’s worth paying attention to, at the very least, and for emerging cartoonists looking to “make their mark” it’s probably well worth emulating — although I’d caution, as always, against direct imitation and/or appropriation. Save that whole “sincerest form of flattery” thing and find your own voice and your own method of communicating your message — but don’t be afraid to use a mini like Funky Dianetics (the title of which makes a kind of sense once you read it, trust me) as a blueprint, but not a strict template.

Does that make sense? I dearly hope so, although I understand that the distinction I’m attempting to throw into at least semi-sharp relief is a slender one. Still, it’s innovation that makes this mini stand out (in addition to some gut-busting humor), and that spirit of innovation is what I hope prospective future artists cleave to as the most important de facto “lesson” Huffman delivers herein. For my own part, all  I can say is that while I like a whole lot of comics, very few rise to the level of actually impressing me for both what they are as well as how they are. This is definitely one of them.

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Funky Dianetics is available for the more than fair price of $5.00 from Domino Books at http://dominobooks.org/funkydianetics.html.

And while you’re out and about with an open wallet online, please consider helping me keep on keeping on by supporting 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. At that price, seriously — what do you have to lose? If you’d care to have a look, please head over to 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