“Crusher Loves Bleeder Bleeder Loves Crusher” #1 : With Friends Like These —

Somewhere in the overgrown fields of soul-dead suburbia, your typical delinquent young teenage boy has made a new friend — but is his new friend only out for blood? And would that question lead you to assume said new friend is probably a vampire?

Spoiler alert : he’s actually a mutant quasi-anthropomorphic fuzzy mosquito (or something), so his lust for the red stuff is just as natural as breathing is to you or me. But maybe we’re putting the cart before the horse by pondering the (somewhat) philosophical questions at the heart of writer Thomas Stemrich and artist Patrick Keck’s new full-sized (and, for the record, self-published) comic ‘zine Crusher Loves Bleeder Bleeder Loves Crusher #1 prior to considering the work on its technical merits? I guess we are.

I’ve reviewed Keck’s work in the past, most recently his years-in-the-making solo graphic novel Peepers over at Solrad, and to say he’s always surprising is to sell him short : there’s a rich wellspring of creativity that he brings to every project, one heavily informed by traditional visual storytelling tropes and rhythms yet never less than utterly surprising for that fact; heck, I might even go so far as to say that getting readers to look at the familiar through an entirely, and singularly, unfamiliar lens is his greatest strength as a cartoonist. His narrative pacing and sense of panel and page composition in this one are downright cinematic, yet the metaphorical lens of his camera is almost always pointed, either directly or appealingly less than directly, where logic or reason would perhaps dictate that it shouldn’t be — the end result being that your eyes (and, I suppose, you mind) end up getting a full 360-degree view of what’s happening, but that view is served up in piecemeal fashion, which serves the twofold purpose of rewarding careful and attentive readers while converting the more, shall we say, casually involved into the ranks of the careful and attentive at the same time. It’s rather ingenious, it must be said, and it heightens the effect of splash pages like the one shown above by making them double as something of a “reveal” at the same time.

And what this book’s various and sundry “reveals” — errrr — reveal is, without exception, some seriously superb cartooning. Rich, inky, refreshingly un-self-conscious sequential art that doesn’t skimp on the details or cut corners, but most certainly does refuse to cross the line over into belabored or otherwise tedious over-rendering. Keck doesn’t show off, he shows — and that’s always the hallmark of somebody who’s genuinely firing on all creative cylinders. This kind of inherently smart approach also means that Keck is perfect for material that blends the everyday with the anything but, and if the brief plot “primer” provided at the outset of this review isn’t enough to convince you that’s exactly what we’ve got going on here, well — either your reading comprehension isn’t up to par, or my writing isn’t. Take your pick.

Stemrich, for his part, needn’t worry on that score as his writing most assuredly is up to the task here, and threads a pretty tricky needle between the emotional and the nauseating that takes some real understated finesse. For folks like myself who came of age reading too much Mike Diana, there’s a kind of tense sub-expectation that the “magic bug” is gonna turn out to be a perv and molest the kid at some point, but you can breathe easy : there’s actually a kind of bizarre quid pro quo of sorts going on here between boy and insect, each needing companionship for entirely different reasons — the question is, will they survive to remain friends for the long haul? Perhaps readers of Keck’s Patreon already know that answer, given this comic reprints material that first appeared on that site and continues to run to this day, if I’m not very much mistaken, but damn — I honestly think that even Patreon subscribers are going to want this print version, because Chris Cajero Cilla (a superb cartoonist in his own right) just plain knocks it out of the park with the job he does on the duo-tone screen printed covers in his capacity as print maestro of Sardine Can Press.

This comic is part one of two, so I suppose that means that there’s some small chance that the back half of the story will let the side down, but I think the odds of that are pretty remote — after all, tonally and thematically speaking we’re dealing with something pretty unique here, a hermetically-sealed world of its own where the line between grotesque and heartwarming isn’t just blurred, but obliterated altogether. I’m certainly anxious to see how it all wraps up — but I fully expect that, as with this issue, the wise move with the second one will be to read it on an empty stomach.

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Crusher Loves Bleeder Bleeder Loves Crusher #1 is available for $6.00 from Patrick Keck’s Storenvy site at https://patrickkeck.storenvy.com/products/31706515-crusher-loves-bleeder-bleeder-loves-crusher-no-1

Review wrist check – Yema “Navygraf Maxi Dial” riding its factory-issue (and amazingly comfortable) stainless steel bracelet.

What’s Cooking In The “Werewolf By Night Kitchen”?

I’ll give Patrick Keck credit for this much — visually speaking, he knows how to pack a hell of a lot into eight pages.

Deftly-applied rich and inky blacks that belie a woodcut influence on the one end and a DIY “ugly art” aesthetic on the other meet somewhere in the middle to congeal into a truly unique and visceral style, more defiantly “in your face” than Keck’s been in many recent works (folks who only know him from Twilight Of The Bat are gonna be floored), but beyond that, what’s offered here on the day-glo yellow pages of his most recent self-published ‘zine, Werewolf By Night Kitchen, is a decidedly mixed, if intriguing, bag. I think I have a solid grip on what Keck was hoping to achieve with this short-form work — but I’m not at all convinced he manages to pull it off.

Tell you what, though — you really do have to give him points for trying. This is illustration laden with gusto and intent, and definitely glues you by the eyeballs. Unfortunately, it’s employed in service of a rather lackluster “tone poem” that has a certain “outsider literature” tempo and rhythm to it, but no real substance. It’s not the lack of narrative, linear or otherwise, that bugs me — anybody who reads this site knows I don’t need shit to make sense in order to make sense of it — rather, it’s the complete and utter absence of a firm goal with the writing. A wordless comic probably would have been a better way to go here, one that leaves most of the work of interpretation up to the reader. By injecting a threadbare and entirely unnecessary “through-line” into the proceedings by means of clumsily-executed writing (we can debate how intentional or not that clumsiness is), Keck is trying to have it both ways : providing just enough by way of a skeletal structure, but not hanging much over it in order to leave at least something up to the audience.

My advice? Keck should leave a lot more up to us. Imagery like this:

or this :

opens the mind up to lots of possibilities, many of them decidedly uncomfortable, and also proves that Keck is capable of provoking with illustrations either rich in detail or more economically-executed. We know he’s a cartoonist who can deliver the goods. But whether he’s doing highly intricate work or slapping something together quickly, he’s always at his best when he trusts his own instincts, as well as those of his readers. Werewolf By Night Kitchen shows him hedging his bets on both himself and us — and, as such, comes up short on both accounts.

Which, I’m well aware, may sound unduly harsh. As mentioned a moment ago, there’s certainly no lack of effort on display here — but there is a curious and disappointing lack of confidence. Incoherence I can handle just fine — indecision, by contrast, is a fatal flaw in any work.

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All that being said, this comic can be had so cheaply that it may be worth taking a flyer on if only to check out an interesting, if failed, experiment. Keck is selling the book for just two bucks via his Storenvy site, here’s the link :http://patrickkeck.storenvy.com/products/4280339-werewolf-by-night-kitchen

 

“Flayed Corpse And Other Stories” : Josh Simmons Sits At The Center of A Brutal, Random, Uncaring Universe — Is That A Bad Thing?

In most fields of entertainment and/or artistic expression (the two only seem mutually exclusive, they needn’t necessarily be), there is usually at least one generally-acknowledged “Master of Horror,” if not several : literature has Stephen King; cinema has John Carpenter remaining out of the one-time Carpenter/Craven/Romero “trinity,” with plenty of others ready and waiting to assume up the mantle;  television has Robert Kirkman (hey, I didn’t say I liked all these folks); mainstream comics still clings to the acclaimed works of “British Invaders” Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Jamie Delano, as well as to the legendary EC and Warren creators. Purportedly “alternative” or “independent” comics, though? Not so much.

Certainly the first wave of underground comix saw plenty of cartoonists who were very much at home delineating the horrific : Greg Irons, Jack Jackson, Spain Rodriguez, S. Clay Wilson and all produced memorable horror-themed works — heck, even a young Richard Corben cut his teeth in the underground milieu. These days, though, folks pursuing a non-corporate path for their comics careers tend toward the autobiographical, the surreal, the “slice-of-life,” the dramatic, the melodramatic. Horror seems to have fallen somewhat out of favor among the “indie” set.

Which is why Josh Simmons is such a breath of fresh — if fetid and diseased — air. Whether we’re talking about his shorter works collected in books such as The Furry Trap, or long-form graphic novels like Black River, this is a guy who makes his bread and butter holding a brutally scrambled — and just as brutally honest — funhouse mirror up to society and forcing us to acknowledge any number of things we’d much rather ignore, and his latest Fantagraphics-published collection, Flayed Corpse And Other Stories, sees him back on familiar ground and twisting the knife in deeper.

Simmons is often mistakenly lumped in with the “dudebro” crowd of white male cartoonists that think subtracting all meaning from their work automatically makes it “edgy” and gives them license to “up the ante” (Jason Karns, I’m looking at you — and Charles Forsman, I’m looking at you sometimes), but what I think the largely-well-meaning critics who take exception to this (as, usually, they should) miss is that there are ways to make pointlessness a point in and of itself, and that it takes genuine skill to effectively imbue your work with a sense of dread at the realization that the world is going to go on spinning no matter what the hell happens to any of us individually. That’s what Simmons does, and he does it without apology, pity, or a minute’s hand-holding.

His intro strip to this volume, pictured above, subverts the contents of everything that follows for those of us who know what to expect, saves its sardonic punchline if you’re a newbie, but undoubtedly works like a charm (an unlucky one, perhaps, but still) either way and very nearly manages to momentarily redeem the concept of irony until you remember that, oh yeah, most people shouldn’t even try this shit, but Simmons does it well enough to earn a pass. It’s really the first (and titular) strip presented after the table of contents, then, that sets the “legit” tone for the next one-hundred-sixty-some pages, as medical examiners debate how an unfortunate corpse came to be in their “care,” each one-upping the other with increasingly grotesque hypotheses as to cause of death before settling on all of them, and that the victim therefore met his end in a state of extreme agony — an agony that will likely endure forever because, I guess, that’s how metaphysics works. Welcome to a highly personal apocalypse that never ends.

Bizarrely, though, Simmons and his coterie of collaborators — writer/artist Tom Van Deusen, inker Eric Reynolds, artists Patrick Keck, Ben Horak, James Romberger, Pat Moriarty, Eroyn Franklin, Ross Jackson, and Joe Garber (with additional stand-alone art pages by Tara Booth, Anders Nilsen, and Shanna Matuszak) — find the funny side in the midst of this bleakness. The humor on offer is of the unsettling — hell, the gallows — variety, to be sure, but sometimes a shameful laugh in spite of yourself is better than no laugh at all.

In that sense, then, this assemblage of stories — most culled from various anthologies published between the years 2010-2017, although some were self-contained “floppy” single-issue releases — probably owes more to the ethos and aesthetic of the drive-ins and grindhouses of the ’70s than it does to what’s happening in contemporary horror, given that anything can happen at any time and no one is safe. Joe Bob Briggs would probably approve — as do I — but folks who grew up on horror with implicit, if never directly-stated, rules ? The readers who know the “loose” girls die first, the virgins survive until the end, the killer gets up and walks again no matter how violently he’s been dispatched? They might be genuinely surprised by the kind of “no hope for anyone, ever, so don’t fucking kid yourself” existential terror that is Simmons’ stock in trade.

I really don’t want to give the impression that this book has a sense of relentlessness to it, though — and while much of that is down to the aforementioned bleak humor, a lot of it is down to the varying, but uniformly pitch-perfect, art styles on display. Simmons’ own cartooning is plenty strong in its own right — rich and inky blacks juxtaposed with economic, effective, and moody linework that gives off a feel of “what if Chester Brown swapped out his clinical detachment for informed cynicism?” and finds its apex in the collection’s two finest stories (“The Incident At Owl’s Head,” a revisionist take on outsider-wanders-into-an-isolated-community tropes, and “Seaside Home,” a harrowingly straightforward character study of a family facing unavoidable, inescapable natural disaster) — but he shows a real penchant for playing to his artists’ strengths when he sets the pencils and brushes aside himself.

Of the collaborative entries, the strongest is no doubt “Twilight Of The Bat,” the justly-celebrated story that draws the one and only logical conclusion  to the let’s- not-call-him-Batman and let’s-also-not-call-him-Joker relationship (something of a surprise entry given that the original, riso-printed magazine came out in the latter part of 2017 and is still available from its publisher, Cold Cube Press), drawn with suitable post-apocalyptic grit by Patrick Keck, while the best example of two heads being better than one is probably “Daddy,” a stark and particularly unforgiving tale of the “oh my God the killer was already in our home” variety that transcends its telegraphed-from-the-outset trajectory thanks to James Romberger’s violently evocative art that marries old-school EC eeriness with a thoroughly modern sensibility, all awash with rich and vibrant and frankly disturbing colors. It’s gorgeous to look at, yeah, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt like hell.

Still, while the gory and the gross are  present and accounted for here in generous proportion (see especially the Pat Moriarty-illustrated “The Great Shitter”), it is the philosophy underpinning Simmons’ stories that sets them apart and above. Not even the light-hearted (relatively speaking, mind  you) Tom Van Deusen-penned yarn, “Late For The Show,” can completely escape the inexorable vortex pull of inevitability at the core Flayed Corpse And Other Stories. When your number is up, it’s up, Simmons never tires of reminding us — but before it comes up (and I hope, for your sake, that’s not for a good, long while yet), I absolutely urge you to buy this book.

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/03/2017 – 12/09/2017

Great stuff to tell you about this week, friends, so let’s eschew the time-wasting in favor of getting right the fuck down to business —

Twilight Of The Bat is Josh Simmons’ second “unauthorized” take on DC’s most bankable property, following on from his 2007 mini-comic simply titled “Batman” (later re-christened, no doubt for legal reasons, “Mark Of The Bat”), and this time out he’s joined by artist Patrick Keck for a 20-page ‘zine boasting high-quality Risograph printing and an $8.00 price tag set in a post-apocalyptic G _____ City where “The Bat” and his mortal enemy “Joke-Man” are the only survivors. The true nature of the most psychologically complex hero/villain relationship in comics is laid bare in frank and stark terms here, Kek’s rich and no-doubt-time-consuming linework is exceptional, and damn if this story won’t even make you laugh a couple times in spite of yourself. Yeah, okay, the Killing Joke influence is too obvious to miss, but this is, if anything, even more harrowing and tragic, even if does posit the same (and only)  inevitable outcome for this pair of star-crossed haters/lovers that Moore and Bolland did thirty years ago.

Damn! Now that I feel positively ancient, I’ll just mention that the inside covers feature pin-up art by Tara Booth and Anders Nilsen, who both contribute outstanding work — even if I can’t begin to decipher what Nilsen’s illustration has to do with the book at all. Well worth a buy, and damn, do these guys ship fast — I got mine in two days. Order yours at http://www.coldcubepress.com/shop/twilight-of-the-bat-josh-simmons-pat-keck

Uncivilized Books wants six of your hard-won dollars for John Porcellino’s South Beloit Journal, and you know what? You should give it to ’em. This is an engaging little collection of diary strips drawn at the low point of Porcellino’s life in the winter/spring of 2011, and if we’re going to measure it on a “diary comics bleakness/hopefulness scale” that has Gabby Schultz toiling away in the doldrums and Brian Canini serving up sunshine and rainbows at the other end, I’d have to say that it falls firmly in the middle. Certainly there is depression, anxiety, and even nihilism to spare, but by the end, things are looking up for Mr. King-Cat, and his shot at potential happiness feels well-eared, if almost nonchalantly arrived at. But then, that’s kinda how life works, isn’t it? Things suck until, slowly but surely, they don’t anymore. Chicken-scratch minimalism doesn’t get much more honest and engaging than this. Get it direct from the publisher at http://www.uncivilizedbooks.com/comics/south_beloit_journal.html or the author at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/south-beloit-journal-by-john-porcellino/

Eric Haven is a cartoonist whose work first caught my attention when I was a teenager and he was putting out a three-issue series called Angryman for Caliber’s short-lived Iconografix imprint (anyone else remember that one?), and while his Hollywood gig as a producer on Myth Busters has kept him away from the drawing board more than I’d like, on those rare occasions when he does produce some new stuff, it’s always worth checking out — and his latest, the Fantagraphics-published hardback Vague Tales, is certainly no exception. A nearly-wordless collection of interlocked stories featuring super-heroes, super-villains, super-barbarians, and super-sorceresses that’s part Winsor McKay, part Jack Kirby, part Fletcher Hanks, part Charles Burns, and part something else entirely, this one seeps into your brain as you read it and simmers there for days as you try to piece together exactly what it’s all about/in aid of. Big, bold, brash — and yet profoundly subtle at the same time. Seventeen bucks is a bit much, true, but I don’t feel cheated in the least as this is one to re-visit over and over again. Porcellino’s got it at http://www.spitandahalf.com/product/vague-tales-by-eric-haven/

Fantagraphics also serves up our final offering of the week, Michel Fiffe’s Zegas, and this is the point where the spirit of full disclosure compels me to admit that I’ve never quite loved Copra as much as my fellow arbiters of taste breathlessly assure me that I need to. Mind you, I don’t dislike it in the least, I just fail to see what all the fuss is about.

This, though? Yeah, this one’s worth fussing about. Fiffe actually self-published this vibrantly-colored, assuredly-drawn story in serialized form before his more -celebrated (and still ongoing) super-hero homage, and for me this tale of two siblings with vastly different, but equally-compelling, problems trying to make their way toward vastly different, but equally-compelling, goals in a recognizable-but-not-quite city of the future, collected here in one volume for the first time, is supremely confident, visually literate stuff of the highest order. The sci-fi landscape is a tricky one to navigate, but in Emily and Boston, we have two fascinating guides, albeit for distinct — even disparate — reasons. Can’t recommend this one highly enough — well worth the $19.99 cover price, but easy enough to find for less even without resorting to Amazon. So don’t.

Alright, that ought to be enough to empty your wallet for one week — it was for me! — see you back here in seven days for another round!