Guest columnist Miguel Cima, director/host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics, continues his series of essays looking at what makes comics so great, and what’s holding them back.
[NOTE: In this space from time to time, I will write about a Wednesday Surprise. What is that? It’s a comic that takes me to a new place in the comicsphere. Visions written and drawn to feed some starved part of my brain I didn’t know was there. I spend a lot of time and money to find these comics. When they hit my eyes, I remember why I still seek them out, why I don’t quit comics. If your consciousness could use some expanding from sequential art once in a while, you may like coming here. And now that you’ve read this, you won’t need to do so again. The same blurb will appear in this space word for word and after all – you won’t keep reading to not be surprised.]
If I may, please allow me to define a sub-genre which I think I may be making up: Bizarro Depravity comics. The simple definition is: sequential art employing elements of destructive and socially unacceptable behavior and imagery, meant to induce moral and/or philosophical confusion, and characterized by surreal narrative and/or rendering which is often disturbing, yet causes your mind to engage in new visual languages. That’s all a very fancy way of saying, these comics are really messed up, but in a smart artistic way, and the violence and antagonism encountered is meant to challenge your brain, not exploit your emotions. If you are still confused, I can’t help you, you’ll just have to check out the comics I’m talking about.
This week’s Wednesday Surprise was The Bulletproof Coffin: Disinterred, issue #4 (Image Comics). You really don’t need to read the previous series (the awesome surreal love letter to comics, The Bulletproof Coffin) or even the previous issues to “get” what writer David Hine and artist Shaky Kane offer up here. As they explain in their foreword, they’ve simply taken 84 comics panels, cut them up, and laid them out in a non-linear narrative form. They even encourage you to start reading from any random point and progress in any direction you want. The result is a comic book with no rules, and yet a distinct and deliberate evocation for your mind. Each panel is an individual scene of nightmare, drudged from everything including pop culture, crime sheets, horror comics, sci-fi movies, junky novels, and childhood fears. Some of the panels are related and could be placed together for their own narrative. But why do that? Just like some fevered dream, time doesn’t need to happen chronologically here, logic doesn’t need to organize events, and control is out the window. Reading through the issue is like a breathless voyage through terror and our own worst thoughts. And reason won’t save you: it’s been purposefully eschewed here. It’s a funhouse ride through the rotten dregs of your soul, and a direct homage to William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch which is acknowledged both through the rather odd afterword as well as the “Where’s Waldo?” game of Burroughs references littered throughout. If you enjoy being deeply spooked and can let go of need for a conventional story, I recommend you buy this comic (and I would also pick up a copy of Shaky Kane’s solo work – Monster Truck – which is not quite as harsh or non-linear).
So of course, this has me recalling some Bizarro Depravity Wednesday Surprise comics from the past that I’d like to share here with you. And we’ll stay clear of non-linear narrative by starting with the page-turner The Cabbie, by Spanish creator Martí (Fantagraphics Books). This complex reaction to Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, the Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, and the Underground Comix scene from the ’70s and ’80s was cooked up in the post-Franco era in Spain. After years of repression, artists really let it all hang out, pushing boundaries of acceptability and subject matter. The Cabbie follows the tale of a pious, hard-working taxi driver who has a penchant for crime-fighting. His unwitting involvement in catching a crook draws him into the world of a poverty-stricken criminal family living in the slums by a sewer drain pipe. There’s no shortage of hookers, booze, knife fights, toxic sludge and murder in this landscape. And the deeper the Cabbie gets into it, the darker his own soul becomes – but maybe he had a head start. After all, what seems like a decent citizen on the surface turns out to be a fanatical weirdo who wildly drifts between great avarice and deep guilt, all the time projecting a veneer of decency. As for the depraved criminal family – they have a good side, too. They really care about each other – even if that means promoting robbery and prostitution to their children as an acceptable survival tool. Visually, The Cabbie throws stark classical comic stripping in your face, confusing your eyeballs with the expectation of a palatable Sunday funny page, all the while drawing you deeper into the madness and perversions found on the fringes of civilization. I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t an important influence on Kaz’s brilliant Underworld strip, which similarly takes us to the dark alleys and gutters of the mind – albeit in a far more humorous way. There’s no real laughs in The Cabbie, but it’s not really depressing at all. It’s just massively absurd and insane. I did laugh a few times, but in that “holy shit, this is fucked up” kind of way. But I have to emphasize: The Cabbie is a really good solid tale. There are no abstractions here, only a moral ambiguity which is probably far more real than most of us would like to admit.
Back to being funny, Bizarro Depravity has a strong foundation in comedy, and perhaps the most extreme version of this in the last few years is Johnny Ryan’s Prison Pit (Fantagraphics Books). Three volumes of this gratuitously gruesome humor book have graced my grey matter so far. In this work, Ryan essentially deconstructs the fantasy genre and superheroes at the same time. The story – a minimal prop for the action – is about a bunch of super-powered creatures from across the cosmos lumped onto a penitentiary planet which becomes a de facto gladiatorial arena for some very weird monsters. The grizzly battles are long and protracted – and uniquely violent. The trick is in the various abilities of the fighters. One gets its head torn off, only to have a much more horrific and deadly set of appendages emerge. Another monster gets eaten, chewed to bits and shit out – only to transform his fecal form into a corrosive blob that keeps fighting. Yes, every disgusting body part gets Ryan’s attention – and he makes a few up as well. Alien genitals, mutated orifices, it’s all limited only by Ryan’s thick imagination. His drawing style is far too funny to be disturbing, but what he makes you look at forces you to think about dismemberment, regeneration and excretion in a whole new way. It’s made for horror and fantasy fans, pressing you to re-imagine the traditional meta-human powers. Things like great strength, flight, fire, and telekinesis are amongst the familiar fare in Prison Pit – they’re just not the limit of things. Yes, it’s a venture into potty humor, totally immature and adolescent, so if you don’t think ass jokes are funny, don’t bother. But if you do, and you have a strong constitution, Prison Pit offers some of the most creative – and I MUST stress the term creative – blood-splattered, monster-filled, battle-ridden experiences in comics. And it’s damned funny too. But don’t confuse Ryan’s intent with a horror book like Crossed. While Crossed has its sick sense of humor as well, Prison Pit isn’t meant to give you night terrors. It’s just a smart and goofy guy finding a way to have some fun being naughty while making fun of the typical fanboy books which so many “adults” take so seriously. And like all three books here, it’s got its own distinctive place in the Bizarro Depravity genre.
Argentinean-born New Yorker and NYU film school graduate Miguel Cima is a veteran of film, television and music. He has worked for such companies as Warner Bros., Dreamworks and MTV. An avid comic book collector since he could read, Miguel began writing stories in 4th grade and has not slowed down since. He is a world traveler, accomplished writer, filmmaker, and comics creator. He is the writer, director and host of the award-winning documentary Dig Comics. Follow Dig Comics on Facebook. Read Miguel’s comic book recommendations.