Stepping Through Simon Hanselmann’s “Bad Gateway”

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve been of a mind that Simon Hanselmann should dump Megg, Mogg, Owl, and the rest of the gang and do something different. Move forward. Push himself to expand his horizons by letting go of the familiar.

On a purely technical level, he’s definitely been honing his craft — his cartooning has become more precise and refined, while his painting has graduated from the “impressive” to the “magnificently rich and detailed” — but in a larger sense, I felt that he’d been every bit as stuck as his ensemble cast, all this aesthetically-proficient work wasted on dead-end narratives about characters who, by design, were never going to amount to shit. Sure, Megahex was masochistic fun, but Megg And Mogg In Amsterdam was largely more of the same, only in Amsterdam, while One More Year was, well, one more year. I get that his work is focused on the exploits of people (and animals) for whom lethargy isn’t just a “way of life” but is life itself, but let’s be honest — going nowhere is more interesting to read about when it doesn’t seem like the author of a “go-nowhere” narrative is following suit in their real life.

With the release of Bad Gateway a couple of months back, however, all that seems out the window. The physical format itself announces that we’re venturing into new territory with this one, publisher Fantagraphics abandoning the compact size of earlier volumes in favor of an embossed-cover hardback of Eurocomics album dimensions complete with black-as-night gilding on the pages — but that’s just a reflection of the sea change for the darker that’s awaiting readers within.

With the long-suffering Owl having finally, and entirely reasonably, decided to fly the coop and his room being being taken over by low-rent dope dealer Werewolf Jones, as well as just the inevitable passage of time, the consequences that Mogg and, in particular, Megg have narrowly been avoiding for so long as they continued their self-destructive downward spiral begin to knock harder at the door. The time has come to grow the fuck up, no matter how poorly prepared these characters are for it — and by choosing to go down this road, Hanselmann has proven me dead wrong. He can, in fact, push himself forward as a cartoonist by sticking with these folks — and if one chooses to view the body of his work in its totality, those last couple of “more of the same” books that I started this review bitching about may have been entirely necessary to set the stage for this one.

Also coming into clear focus is Megg’s status as stand-in for her creator. In the past I’ve viewed Hanselmann’s openness about his mother’s drug addiction and his troubled childhood as almost a cynical “selling point” in much the same way as the egomaniacal-yet-undeniably-talented James Ellroy has exploited the tragic murder of his own mother as a kind of superhero “origin story” to imbue his past with the quality of legend, but when Hanselmann transposes his familial drama onto his characters, the end result is a raw, open, festering wound that leads not so much to any particular moment of catharsis as it does a kind of uneasy and hard-arrived-at resignation. I’d probably prefer to have known nothing about Hanselmann’s upbringing going into this and to have found out about it purely through his art, but hey — it’s his life, and how he chooses to address the issues that shaped him into who he is today? That’s his call.

Even with his own “backstory” firmly established in the public consciousness, however, this is still a tough read. Yeah, the juvenile humor is still present and accounted for, but in this new, more expansive context it crosses the threshold from “lame” to “sad,” and the constant question on readers’ minds — “why the hell don’t these losers just get their shit together already?” — is replaced with a deep and unsettling understanding of why they haven’t, sure, but even more crucially why they can’t. And yet —

Like it or not, they don’t have much choice in the matter, and truthfully never did. There’s some emotionally difficult flashback material to Megg’s past on offer here, but more intriguing and ultimately consequential are the hints about the future interspersed throughout that make it clear that this book is in no way the end of the road but, rather, represents the opening of a new and necessary chapter of these lives that we only thought we knew all too well. Some may jump ship at this point, but Hanselmann’s moving beyond the “cheap laughs” crowd and may, in fact, be moving beyond the crowd who are coming into his work looking for any sort of laughs at all. That takes some guts — more, frankly, than I thought he had — and the end result is a book that is both exciting and crushingly depressing in the same way that artists in other media such as Todd Solondz and Hubert Selby, Jr. were once able to simultaneously achieve.

It remains to be seen whether or not all is lost for Megg, Mogg, and their “friends,” but years of self-abuse always come with a price attached, and in Bad Gateway the bill comes due. How they pay it and whether or not they incur another are questions we don’t completely know the answers to yet, but this comic, against all expectation, has me interested in sticking around to find them out.


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Weekly Reading Round-Up : 12/31/2017 – 01/06/2018

Happy New Year everyone, hope your 2018 got off to a rousing start, certainly the comic-book world seems primed to have a good year if the way things have started off is any indication —

It’s no secret to anyone following my writing, here or elsewhere, that DC’s line of licensed Hanna-Barbera comics has been something I’ve been singing the praises of pretty much since they made their debut nearly two years back, and trust me when I say that no one’s more surprised about that than I am given that most of these cartoons hold precisely zero nostalgic value for me and the overwhelming majority of DC’s publishing output is creatively worthless. Still, the free reign they’ve been giving to some of their best freelancers to “re-imagine” these moribund properties has paid off big time, and to date the absolute cream of the crop has been Mark Russell and Steve Pugh’s The Flintstones, a 12-issue examination of decidedly modern social, economic, and political challenges filtered through a disarmingly charming pre-historic lens that offered some of the most smart, hilarious, and heartwarming stuff we’ve seen in any “Big Two” comic in, quite literally, years. In my “Top 10” ongoing series column of last year (okay, that still only means last month) I said that more than a simple Bedrock redux the book was actually a spiritual heir to Howie Post’s sublime Anthro, and I stand by that claim 100%. I was genuinely sad to see it come to an end. And yet —

Russell quickly transitioned over to another Hanna-Barbera book, and if anything, Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles #1 is an even stronger debut than The Flintstones #1 was. The set-up here is as obvious as it is genius : Snagglepuss is essentially Tennessee Williams, a celebrated gay playwright in the repressive early 1950s, and draping his exploits against the backdrop of HUAC and the “Red Scare” both grounds events in historical reality (even if a few liberties are taken) and offers the chance for cameos from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman to actually work within the context of the story rather than being mere attention-grabbers. The scene at the start of a couple out for a big night on the town ends up having a decidedly “gallows humor” punch-line to it at the end when it turns out that they’re dressed to the nines to witness the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, so yeah, as always, Russell is pulling no punches here and wearing his politics right on his sleeve — and I say good for him, and fuck the small handful of square right-wing “critics” who have been trashing this book online. This is a comic with a heart as big as its brain and if you don’t like stories that present an actual point of view, shoot — there are roughly a hundred other DC books for you to choose from this month that are cowed, derivative, completely vapid slug-fests. Go read any of them. Hell, go read all of them. Let those of us who actually value relevance enjoy this rare foray into it from a major publisher. And hey, icing on the cake — the book looks great, too. Penciller Mike Feehan draws with a clean line that’s a nice blend of “cartoony” and realistic, inker Mark Morales does a faithful job on embellishments, and superstar colorist Paul Mounts utilizes a lavish, multi-toned palette that makes every panel look like a million bucks. Not only is it a fairly safe bet that DC won’t put out a better book this year, it’s a fairly safe bet that very few comics, period, will be this good. I’m bummed it’s only scheduled for a six-issue run, but heck — I’m ecstatic that it even exists at all. Proof positive that great things can still emerge from highly unlikely sources, and the best four bucks you’ll spend this week, if not this month. Shit, maybe even this year.

And yeah, it just occurred to me that I may end up eating those words, but you know what? I kind of doubt it. I know I’m probably losing a ton of credibility in the eyes of a lot of people I respect by saying this, but I have to call ’em like I see ’em, and Exit Stage Left : The Snagglepuss Chronicles is straight-up brilliant. And that’s a term I never use lightly.

Keeping our “Big Two” theme going, we also got the second issue of Ed Piskor’s X-Men : Grand Design this past Wednesday, and for my money (specifically, for my $5.99) it’s every bit as good as the first, maybe even moreso, as we dive pretty deeply into the some of the weirdest areas of X-history (Lucifer and all that) this time out. The story here is way more involving than a historical re-hash should be, the art’s terrific, the colors are eye-popping, the book’s production values are first-rate, and it’s more than fair to say this big experiment from Marvel has absolutely paid off. Piskor will be back this summer for his second go-’round (likewise comprised of two over-sized — and no doubt jam-packed — issues), and you’d better believe I’m counting down the days already.

Alright, let’s get to the small press since that’s still, in theory, what this site’s all (okay, mostly) about : I got a copy of Simon Hanselmann’s 16-page newsprint broadsheet Performance this past week, and this thing is absolutely gorgeous. Clocking in at a whopping 15″x 22.75″, this selection of exquisite full-color gallery paintings of Megg, Mogg, Owl, Werewolf Jones, Booger and the gang showcases Hanselmann at his best, and couldn’t come at a better time considering that I number myself among those who think that his shtick has gotten more than a bit stale as the years have gone on. Maybe the fact that this is an “all-art” publication that features none of his repetitious, dead-end “stories” is just what I needed to remind me of why I initially loved his stuff so much seven or eight (or whatever) years ago? I dunno, but whatever the case may be, this is as pleased as I’ve been with a Hanselmann project at any point since Megahex first came out. Yeah, I still think it’s well past time that he tried his hand at something new, but unless and until that day comes, this is $8.00 very well spent. Get it from the publisher, Floating World Comics, at

I got on the Eric Kostiuk Williams train late, first encountering his work in his late-2016 Retrofit/Big Planet release Babybel Wax Bodysuit, and I’m getting to his newest offering — the Koyama Press-published Condo Heartbreak Disco — late as well, given that I guess it actually came out a few months ago. Well, sorry, but I didn’t buy a copy until the other day — but fortunately, it was worth the wait, even if I didn’t know I was waiting for it. At 48 pages of story and art it’s probably not fair to call this a “graphic novel” per se, but it’s nevertheless a dense (visually and narratively) story, centered around “purveyors of socially-motivated revenge and personal guidance” Komio and The Willendorf’s Braid as they attempt to save Toronto from an onslaught of high-end “luxury” housing that is, quite literally, decimating once-vibrant neighborhoods and communities. A decidedly camp-infused and “snarky” anti-gentrification fable/superhero parody mix, this book is illustrated in Williams’ highly fluid (hell, borderline anarchic), richly-detailed style, and his page layouts are as incredibly inventive and free-flowing as his plot — or, for that matter, his protagonists’ identities. Things happen at full-throttle speed here, but the eye is guided through the pages in such a graceful, naturalistic manner that you won’t even know that you’re not being given time to catch your breath, and for a book centered around buildings and structures, it sure feels — and looks — incredibly organic. Yeah, I lament the fact that Williams is working is black and white here since he’s one of the strongest cartoonists out there when it comes to his use of color, but that’s a small gripe in the scheme of things when art and story both are this unique and confidently-realized. Cover price is ten bucks, but I wouldn’t feel bad about paying twice that, truth be told, and it’s not too hard to find it from unnamed major online retailers for even less.

Okay, that’s the first week of 2018 down! See you all in seven short days as we go over whatever week two has — or, by then, had — in store!

This Week’s Reading Round-Up : 10/1/2017 – 10/7/2017

Okay, look, who are we kidding? Fantagraphics’ Now #1 is the “big story” in comics this week, as well it should be, but I’m still cobbling my various and sundry thoughts on that one together for a comprehensive review that I should have ready in the next few days. Until then, though, let’s take a quick look at a handful of other items new on shelves and/or in my mailbox that grabbed my attention, for good or ill, this week —

Portrait is a self-published collection of strips by Simon Hanselmann that ran as part of his “Truth Zone” (or TZ, if you prefer) webcomics series. The initial printing sold out pretty quickly and I missed out on it, but I ordered one up pronto when word got out that he was headed back to press (or, more likely, Kinko’s) with it. Megg. Mogg, and Owl take aim at the so-called “alternative comix scene” in these pages, and while it’s all reasonably entertaining, especially if you have — uhhhmmm — “concerns” with the targets of  Hanselmann’s sharp but (mostly?) quasi-friendly jabs, it’s also true to say that a fair amount of the “backstory” you need to make head or tail of some of this shit took place on various social media platforms, most notably twitter, some time ago, so after awhile it starts to feel not only vaguely incestuous, but also a bit arcane. I laughed out loud a few times, and that’s worth something I suppose, but if you’re expecting anything with a passing semblance of actual critique to it, you’re bound to feel more than a bit disappointed, as this is mostly just petty “industry” gossip with punchlines at the end. Kinda fun, but somebody from the small press “community” pointing out how ridiculous everybody else involved with it is really isn’t enough to sustain interest for even the short length of this publication, and while Kim O’Connor spent a lot of time in her (well-written as always) review of this comic wondering whether or not it counts as “art,” it’s safe to say that Hanselmann himself clearly believes he’s raised “snark” to an art from, regardless of what any of the rest of us think.  Extra points for bravado there, I suppose, but after a couple of strips were read I actively began failing to see the point. Probably of interest to Hanselmann completists only.

The Third Remedy is a new mini-comic by Chester Brown offered as a premium to his Patreon subscribers (side note, Brown offers great value for your monthly contributions to his continued survival) that provides a pretty solid case study in the “art” of detournement or, as Bob Levin at TCJ would have it, “recontextualization,” given that it takes a pre-existing Carl Barks “Duck” story from Walt Disney’s Comics And Stories  issue number 101 (published in 1949) and swaps out Donald Duck and his nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie with “Golden Age” iterations of Batman and Robin and Daisy with Batgirl,  while leaving  the one-off character of Mrs. Gobblechin as is. It’s interesting, to be sure, and superbly-drawn as you’d expect, but doesn’t aspire to, much less achieve, anything beyond being a fun little curiosity. There’s no harm in that by any means, and the insertion of the “Bat-family” into the proceedings has the probably-intended effect of pointing out not just their strained sexlessness but perhaps even Batman’s fear of both sex and feminization, but some of the brilliance of Barks’ original story is — more by dint of necessity than anything else — lost in translation, and so I have to wonder if people who are reasonably “fluent” in the world of comics really aren’t and/or shouldn’t be the “target audience” for this self-published little “floppy,” especially since Brown doesn’t credit himself anywhere in it. I liked it, I appreciated receiving it, I read it a couple of times, and that’s all fine and dandy — but to be honest, this might have more of an “impact” if you just found it randomly on a bus-stop bench or something and didn’t know what the hell to make of it.  In the aforementioned TCJ piece, in fact,  Brown remarks that he “like(s) the idea of people encountering it and wondering what it is.” He also says that he’s considered printing some more off and leaving them in various locations around town, and that sounds like a pretty good idea to me.

Slots #1 marks the start of a new series (or mini-series, truthfully I don’t know which) from Image (specifically Robert Kirman’s Skybound imprint, so it’s not a creator-owned work — booooo!) by writer/artist Dan Panosian that looked, at least at first glance, like the kind of thing I probably wouldn’t bother with, but I caught a few preview pages at the back of some comic or other (hey, I guess that does actually work!) and found myself sufficiently charmed/impressed to give it a go, and whaddya know? This was actually a whole hell of a lot of fun. Panosian’s story about a washed-up former prizefighter turned small-time scam artist who returns to Vegas to help a former flame and settle some old scores is, admittedly, the kind of thing we’ve seen a thousand times before in the movies, but it’s got one of those “likable scumbag” protagonists, the dialogue ranges from spot-on to sparkling, the broad-stroke characterization hits the mark, and Panosian’s
“scratchy,” free-flowing art is a lot of fun to look at. The Kurtzman-esque lettering he uses for his chapter headers is another nice little plus and rounds out a package that I have no hesitation in calling the most pleasant out-of-left-field surprise in the last few months.

Finally, in the spirit of not ignoring “The Big Two” entirely, we come to Punisher Max : The Platoon #1, which marks the return of both the Max Comics imprint from Marvel (we’ll see how long that lasts) and Garth Ennis to the character that he’s arguably most closely associated with (this is the point at which hard-core Jesse Custer and John Constantine fans put out a contract on my head, I’m sure — relax, I did say “arguably”). Honestly, though, I could give a shit who’s writing Punisher comics, but I’ll take a chance on pretty much any Garth Ennis combat yarn, and given that this is all about Frank Castle’s Vietnam days (is it true he’s been “retconned” into an Iraq or Afghanistan vet now?), I was sold on it going in. Smart move, as it turns out, since this one looks like another winner. Ennis pulls no punches in terms of showing both how hopelessly fucked the situation was over there and how openly most G.I.’s admitted it, and to say that Castle has wandered into a situation where the command structure has “broken down” would be an understatement — it’s downright blown off entirely by the grunts doing the killing and the dying. So, yeah, he’s got his work cut out for him. Meanwhile, in the present day, a reporter tracking down the titular platoon’s surviving members promises a bit of mystery in that it’s nowhere near certain where said journo is getting their information from. Goran Parlov’s art is solidly competent if far from memorable, and some nicely subtle visual cues to the late, great Steve Dillon come off as both entirely unforced and respectful. He probably would have loved to have drawn this comic, and I damn sure enjoyed reading it.

Okay, I think that’ll about do it for this week’s wrap-up, thanks for the kind words everyone offered both here, via email, and most especially on social media last week — I’m no Joe McCulloch by any stretch of the imagination, but with the entirely understandable demise of his column, some kind of semi-omniscient look at what’s new in the world of comics every week with at least a vague hint of a “consumer-centric” approach to it is sadly missing in the nominally “indie”  murky backwater of the funnybook world , don’cha think? And given that it doesn’t get much more murky or much more backwater-y than this little-trafficked blog, I figure I’ll keep doing my part to tell you what might be worth spending your money on until folks either tell me to find something better to do with my time or start finding something better to do with theirs.