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/



“The Bloody Cardinal” : Richard Sala’s Mystery Theater — Of The Absurd

Some cartoonists are so good at “what they do” — at telling the kinds of stories that fit within a niche they’re not only carved out, but created from whole cloth, for themselves — that you feel no particular urge as a reader to see them “branch out” or “try something different” because there’s so much fertile ground waiting to be explored within the thematic and, dare I say it, philosophical territory that they already call their own. Kim Deitch springs immediately to mind here, of course, but so do names as historically and stylistically disparate as Jesse Jacobs, Mark Beyer, Joe Sacco, and Drew Friedman — and so does Richard Sala.

How long has Sala been at it now? Something like three decades? And yet he consistently finds ways to make his unique combination of Hitchcockian psychological thriller, Poirot-esque whodunnit, occult high weirdness, Samuel Beckett absurdism, and understated feminism new, fresh, and exciting. His exquisite art certainly doesn’t hurt his cause — his women are sexy without being hyper- sexualized, his cities and streets a maze of eerie and vaguely Eastern European brick and stone, his overall aesthetic equal parts lived in and highly sleek. Everything’s just a bit off in Sala’s world — the familiar made to seem alien, distant, not quite as we know (or at least feel) it should be.

Now, add in color. Some of Sala’s most famous works — The Chuckling WhatsitPeculia — were b&w affairs, and flirted (quite successfully, I might add) with a woodcut look, but the digital (I’m assuming) ” watercolor painting” on display in graphic novels like Violenzia showed him to be an absolute master of the palette, washing panels over with deeply autumnal hues that make every day look like Halloween. Not too many artists who initially made their mark in a two-tone world can successfully transition into a multi-colored one, but Sala has grabbed the bull by the horns, wrestled it to the ground, and walked away a winner.

All of which brings us to his latest Fantagraphics release, The Bloody Cardinal. If a sprawling cast of silent film-era archetypes pulled inexorably into a tight, compact mystery that goes back decades, if not centuries, and revolves around dusty forbidden tomes, masked serial killers, female adventurers, underground cults thought long dead, morally and ethically compromised psychoanalysts, unconventional police investigators, and alluring but delusional femme fataltes are your cup of tea, then congratulations — you’ve just found comic book gold. If not, well, shit — I can’t help ya, and nobody has time for squares, anyway.

The pacing of this story is typical Sala — brisk without feeling hurried, with atmosphere taking precedent over strictly formalized logical progression, you have to be the sort of tourist willing to trust your guide through this world. Time frames are compressed but somehow flow, key events take place “off screen,” characters talk to themselves as a matter of course, dialogue is sparse and economical — this is hermetically-sealed storytelling that nobody else should (or probably even could) attempt to make work for them, but damn if it doesn’t feel intuitively “right” and seem to conform to an entirely unwritten set of “rules” that only apply to the cartoonist who created them. Don’t try this at home, kids — and why would you even need to when you can just sit back and watch the master at work?

Still, for all of the superlatives I’ve already tossed in The Bloody Cardinal‘s direction — and trust me when I say I could shower it with even more — perhaps the best thing about it is that, should you so choose, you can read the whole thing (entirely legally, I hasten to add) for free. I really love having the newly-released paperback on my shelf, it’s true, but if your finances (understandably) can’t handle the $16.99 cover price, rest easy — Sala serialized the entire story online first at Study Group Comics, and it’s all still available, so check out http://studygroupcomics.com/main/the-bloody-cardinal-part-1-by-richard-sala/. You’re now officially out of excuses — quit reading this review and read the comic instead.