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.
Never read a graphic novel before? Haven’t read a comic book in years?
Here’s some brand new stuff coming out this Wednesday that is worth a look-see. You should be able to pick these up cold without having read anything else. See if something doesn’t grab your fancy. If so, follow the publisher links and you should be able to buy yourself a copy. Or, head to your local friendly comic book shop.
Disclaimer: Having not read these yet (’cause this isn’t Wednesday), I can’t vouch for their quality. But, from what I’ve heard and seen, they just might appeal to you.
Warlord of Io and Other Stories - $3.95
By James Turner
48 pages; published by Slave Labor Graphics
New from the creator of Rex Libris comes The Warlord of IO & Other Stories. The main story in this comic centers on Jon Jett, an unstoppable, unopposable hero in the mold of Flash Gordon. In this opening adventure he comes up against the emperor Zing in a fun and funny space adventure, with plenty of political commentary tossed in for good measure! Also featured in this one-shot is Hell Lost, a social satire that follows the spiritual journey of Muktooth, a demon serving in Hell’s Police Department. Assigned to police crimes that exceed mandated punishment, as well as patron-on-patron (Hell is a service industry, after all!) related crime, he has a case book higher than Mount Everest!
Ctrl+Alt+Del Volume 1: This is a Great Idea – $12.95
By Tim Buckley
136 pages; published by Blind Ferret Entertainment
Video games, food, and sleep. These are the priorities, in that order, of Ethan MacManus, a twenty-something gaming enthusiast with a low tolerance for work, and a penchant for making up his own rules. Anything goes as Ethan and his best friend Lucas deal with life, pop culture, obnoxious customers, and more games than there are minutes in a day. Introducing the first collection of the much-sought-after webcomic, Ctrl+Alt+Del! Hillarious, sarcastic and funny in all respects, this collection includes 130 strips dating back to the epic beginning of the series.
The Bun Field – $12.95
By Amanda Vähämäki
96 pages; published by Drawn & Quarterly
Characterized by an intriguing disjointed rhythm and delicious pencil-smudged style, The Bun Field is defined by a surreal ebb-and-flow, possessing a deep sense of foreboding and hurt, yet maintaining a biting sense of humor. Amanda Vähämäki’s first graphic novel is infused with a sense of abbreviated adolescence and a kind of grey sky banality. A young girl dreams of a dinosaur eating Donald Duck; wakes to find a bald, hulking stranger sharing her breakfast; leaves to take a car trip with a bear; falls and breaks a tooth, to have it replaced from her dentist’s dog’s mouth; and pays back the favor by plowing a field of buns. Young people and anthropomorphic animals commingle in dreamy landscapes, performing mundane tasks that are skewed with an absurd and fantastic edge.
Buck Rogers #0 – $0.25 (yes, a quarter!)
By Scott Beaty & Carlos Rafael
12 pages; published by Dynamite Entertainment
Join us as we present comicdom’s first hero — Buck Rogers… the first man out of time… the first man to be taken out of his present environment and put into the future! In the tradition of such best-selling introductory Dynamite launches as Red Sonja and Battlestar Galactica, Dynamite is launching the all-original #0 issue for just 25¢! Under a John Cassaday cover (Cassaday serves as series cover artist), writer Scott (Batman) Beatty and artist Carlos Rafael present an original 12 page comic book adventure – ‘The Death of Buck Rogers’! This is where it all begins and Dynamite’s plans for Buck Rogers follow the model that they’ve followed over the years beginning with Red Sonja, embracing the history of such classic characters, but giving them a modern edge for today’s audiences! All this, and for a quarter to introduce you to the new canon of Buck Rogers!
Stonecutter – $14.99
By Jon J. Muth & John Kuramoto
136 pages; published by Feiwel & Friends
This adaptation of a Chinese folktale begins with a man’s dissatisfaction with his life. Weary of being a stonecutter, he becomes many things in his quest for authority, each time finding that greater power lies elsewhere. Rooted in Taoist principles, Stonecutter is an exquisite tale about self-acceptance. Originally published in a small, limited edition fifteen years ago, Jon J. Muth republishes the story because “Certain stories leave you with more than when they found you. They shed light on something, or unknot something for you, or offer some insight. At least they do for me. Stonecutter is one such story.” This inspiring tale pushes the boundaries and possibilities of graphic literature, and is now available for a new audience.
The Beats: A Graphic History – $22.00
By Paul Buhle, et al
208 pages; published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux
In The Beats: A Graphic History, those who were mad to live have come back to life through artwork as vibrant as the Beat movement itself. Told by the comic legend Harvey Pekar, his frequent artistic collaborator Ed Piskor, and a range of artists and writers, including the feminist comic creator Trina Robbins and the Mad magazine artist Peter Kuper, The Beats takes us on a wild tour of a generation that, in the face of mainstream American conformity and conservatism, became known for its determined uprootedness, aggressive addictions, and startling creativity and experimentation.
What began among a small circle of friends in New York and San Francisco during the late 1940s and early 1950s laid the groundwork for a literary explosion, and this striking anthology captures the storied era in all its incarnations—from the Benzedrine-fueled antics of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs to the painting sessions of Jay DeFeo’s disheveled studio, from the jazz hipsters to the beatnik chicks, from Chicago’s College of Complexes to San Francisco’s famed City Lights bookstore. Snapshots of lesser-known poets and writers sit alongside frank and compelling looks at the Beats’ most recognizable faces. What emerges is a brilliant collage of—and tribute to—a generation, in a form and style that is as original as its subject.