There were a few years of my twenties where I imagined myself to be on the forefront of a cultural war, and I was fighting for the validity of the comic book. “Graphic novel!” I might shout. “Mature themes!” I would rail. I filled my bookshelves with collected editions and hid my longboxes of monthly comics (floppies, pamphlets, stapled virions of trash culture) in the closet.
Luckily, I’m older now, and I can accept that comics can be many things: long or short, fiction or not, fast or slow, dense or breezy. In a world where short prose has to be lodged between magazine articles or tarted up as longer books (and priced as such), I’ve learned to celebrate the single comic issue. In exchange for a few dollars, I get an objet d’art that I can roll up in my pocket, store in a box, hang on a wall, and, above all, read. Here are some of the latest reasons for my celebration.
It Will All Hurt #1 & 2 by Farel Dalrymple (Study Group Comics, 2013-present)
Farel Dalrymple’s ostensibly ongoing series is a poetic and flowing exploration of grappling with the world’s failure to align with what you imagined it could be. It’s at turns hopeful and dark, casual and ornate, fantastic and mundane. Dalrymple’s work is often dreamily told, and exposition is limited to the superficial classification of places and objects like one might encounter in a video game guidebook—that is, he’ll tell you what a character is called, but he’s not going to dump the whys and hows on you. He’s taking you on a ride, and he’s asking you to settle in and come with.
Scenes dissolve from one into another, leaking together as characters watch others on screens or hear them in their headphones. This blending extends to marks made on the page as well; words and designs and lonely ellipses hover outside of the panel borders. The white gutters, normally off limits in comic storytelling, become another place to play in, jump through, and float along.
The printing on these issues is what keeps pulling me back. The toxic neons of the cover give way to oversize pages filled immaculate watercolors that alternately bloat and burn in the sick, weird world that Dalrymple has created. Even the texture—thin but supple newsprint—feels like something you’d find after society has moved on.
Rubber Necker #5 & 6 by Nick Bertozzi (self-published)
The one-person anthology used to be an apex of achievement for cartoonists. Chester Brown’s Yummy Fur, Daniel Clowes’s Eightball, and Chris Ware’s Acme Novelty Library, for instance, served as spaces for those cartoonists to explore a number of ideas, approaches, and narratives while still marking out a space that was expressly their own. These anthologies serialized stories that were eventually collected as “graphic novels,” and as more publishers pursued graphic novels without the testing arena of serialization, the one-person anthology dropped out of the spotlight.
Luckily, Nick Bertozzi hasn’t abandoned the format. In between making historical graphic novels and teaching at the School of Visual Arts, he’s been putting out issues of Rubber Necker since 2003. Each issue contains part of the serialized “Drop Ceiling,” perhaps the closest Bertozzi comes to the “sad man” genre that populated the anthologies of the nineties and aughts; “Drop Ceiling” is more engaging, though, as Bertozzi allows space for a variety of characters, a range of emotions, and even a bit of plotting that I would almost call “rollicking.”
The rest of the issues are filled out with a variety of gag strips, fake ads, weird meditations, and touching autobio. The colors are carefully considered and serve the stories well; “Drop Ceiling” has a shifting monochrome, and the shorts range from flat pastels to purposefully off-register printing.
An anthology is always a gamble, and the quality is guaranteed to fall within a range. With Rubber Necker, the range is “pretty good” to “artfully touching,” which is a great range.
Debbie’s Inferno by Ann Emond (Retrofit, 2014)
Allegory seems hard to do well. The blunt, one-to-one metaphorical ratio lends itself to obvious and heavy-handed stories. Anne Emond’s Debbie’s Inferno is an exception to that, though. Debbie and her cat explore the landscape wrought from her worries (The Jungle of Jealousy, The Land of Cold Fish, The Mountains of No Atmosphere), and Emond renders the extreme terrain with the same sure line as Debbie herself is drawn in. This effect manages to make the landscape simultaneously fantastical and mundane, which matches the effect these sorts of feelings have on people—they are huge, affecting, and devastating, but they’re also familiar and universal.
The scale of these feelings can be overwhelming, and the “sad man” genre of comics mentioned above often ratcheted that scale into a sort of mopey selfishness that cast everything outside of the protagonist in a gray supporting role. By acknowledging the universality of these feelings, Debbie’s Inferno invites readers to pass through the anxieties at Debbie’s side, with Debbie acknowledging how difficult life can be while her cat urges her (and us) along so that we can rejoin the world.
Gumby’s Summer Fun Special by Bob Burden & Art Adams (Comico, 1987)
Coming at you from the summer of 1987, Gumby’s here to take you far away from those weighty feelings of depression and fear!
(It gets more fun. I promise.)
With art by Art Adams, who, in 1987, was fresh off of drawing wildly popular issues of X-Men and New Mutants, and written by Bob Burden, who is maybe most famous for doing a comic that was adapted into the 1999 movie Mystery Men with Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo, this Gumby special is a weird thing.
Adams pretty much spawned the hyper-rendered drawing style that went to dominate superhero comics throughout the nineties and beyond, and seeing the sleek, simple form of Gumby dashing around with pirates, aliens, and robots drawn in Adams’s traditional, line-filled style creates a strange dissonance.
It’s not necessarily helped by the loping gait of the story. The plot doesn’t escalate and resolve in a traditional way. Instead, it just kind of jumps along from one oddity to the next. It’s almost picaresque in the way Gumby and Pokey tumble along from one set piece to the next.
Luckily, no one goes to Gumby’s Summer Fun Special for a tight plot and sleek visuals. They go to Gumby for the weirdies, and that’s exactly what Burden and Adams deliver. It’s a palate cleanser and an empty calorie. It’s that stapled virion of trash culture that I found for a dollar at an antique store, and the novelty is worth every penny.
Are comics the last refuge of cheap culture to consume? What are your cheap not-quite-guilty pleasures?